Wednesday – How hump day became dump day…

Wednesday was malaria day.  I dreaded Wednesday. I dreaded Wednesday so much that I only felt really great on Thursday and Friday. By Saturday I would begin to develop that in the pit of your stomach apprehension about the approaching week which of course would include that horrible day. Malaria is caused by a mosquito-borne parasite that has wreaked havoc in the tropics for centuries. The disease causes flu-like symptoms such as chills and fever which can come and go for some time and may cause complications or even death. In Sri Lanka, Malaria tracking and eradication efforts began early in the 1900s. There were several large scale epidemics, including one in the 1930s, that claimed tens of thousands of lives. By the early 1960s, with the widespread use of pesticides and the use of mosquito nets to prevent bites, great strides had been made in reducing outbreaks. When we arrived in the early 1980s much progress had been made in the eradication of malaria in Sri Lanka, but there were still cases.

As we were to travel all across the country, a consistent course of prophylactic drugs was prudent.  However, no matter where my parents searched, it was difficult to obtain doses that were appropriate for their two daughters. All they could find were giant pink pills that contained more than double the quantity prescribed for Janelle and me. We heard rumors of a liquid children’s version available in some pharmacies in Europe, and, while visiting Switzerland, Mom and Dad made a special trip to France to try to obtain some, but were unable. So, the pink pills were all that we had. At first this didn’t seem an insurmountable issue. We would simply cut the pretty pills in half. They looked like large, brightly colored, sugar-coated offerings from the Easter Bunny. But inside the fuchsia orbs lurked the most foul-tasting bitterness. I had just learned to swallow pills – practicing on pieces of bread – but every time I tried to wash down the malaria medication I would gag, my tongue rebelling against the bitter pill. We tried masking the harsh taste by burying the pill in applesauce, chocolate, ice cream or marshmallows or grinding it up in orange juice, honey or maple syrup, but nothing helped get it down. Each week I would psych myself up for the challenge – it couldn’t be as bad as I remember. Did it really taste like licking pine sap and bark mulch off of the bottom of your shoe? Week after week, the answer was “no”! It was worse than that!

After weeks of imaginative malaria pill food pairings, the best strategy we came up with was grinding the offensive chloroquine in a small amount of warm water, holding my nose, swallowing and willing myself to get it down. It doesn’t seem a task that should cause so much angst in a ten year old, but it was truly the bane of my existence for quite some time.  It took such concentration to refrain from vomiting up the distasteful liquid that I asked my parents to leave the room to avoid seeing the combination of annoyance and sympathy in their eyes.  For probably six months I hated, no, anxiously loathed, Wednesday.

Every time we would welcome a foreign visitor there was the smallest hope that they would be able to bring the elusive children’s liquid anti-malarial drug, but we never were able to find it. One dreaded Wednesday in Kandy, I simply could not tolerate the lukewarm concoction and dumped the offensive liquid into the storm drain behind our house.  Surely one week of missing the pill wouldn’t be that bad? But Wednesday came again so fast that I repeated the rebellious action. More than once, our gardener, Wilson, seeing me struggle with the putrid, gritty, warm liquid, drank the fluid for me. But, more weeks than not I watered the nearby bamboo stand rather than swallow the nasty stuff. The guilt of secretly dumping my medicine each week was not as bad to me as the taste of the acrid tea. So I spent half of my time in Sri Lanka unprotected from malaria. I kept that secret from my parents for many years – luckily, malaria free years.

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The ants go marching

The meals at our temporary Colombo home for the six weeks were always large and consisted of many types of curries, rice and assorted Sri Lankan staples. On all days but Sundays, dinner and lunch were served by the cook who lived with her daughter, the shy girl I had glimpsed the first day, in a small room in the back of the house. A live-in servant to me conjured up notions of 18th century royalty or the modern ultra-rich.  The closest thing I could think of at home was a friend who had a college-aged nanny who occasionally had the responsibility to pick her up from Day Care when her parents worked late. In Sri Lanka, almost everyone I encountered had domestic help of some kind.  When we settled in Kandy later, we hired assistants as well. Explaining that just because we had a driver or a housekeeper did not make us rich, was something I often had to do when I returned to the states and recounted my adventures. Once, the wonderful young woman who helped my parents with child care and laundry in Kandy, invited me to her home. It was a very modest dwelling of five rooms that she shared with her parents, but when we arrived she asked their cook to bring us some tea.  So, even our housekeeper had a full time cook. I will introduce those who helped my family later, for they became integral to my experiences. When I returned to the United States, I hated using the word servants to describe the individuals who assisted us every day. They were part of my family and helped me learn so much about Sri Lankan culture and language, but servant was how they were referred to in Sri Lanka, and when one has a household with a cook, a gardener, a driver and a housekeeper isn’t it difficult to say one does not employ servants?

So each lunch and dinner was served by the cook while her daughter remained in the kitchen. The pair obviously worked together to prepare the meals and the girl clearly did not attend school. I did occasionally catch a glimpse of her in the kitchen with a book and Mrs. Walpita, the woman who owned the house, proudly told us at dinner one day that the young girl could read well and was often gifted with used books. How different that barefoot girl’s life was to mine. Sweeping the kitchen, peeling vegetables and cleaning dishes were her everyday chores without the distractions and stimulation of school, play dates, or trips to the mall that I enjoyed. I had not been told that the kitchen was off limits, but an unspoken rule implied only Mrs. Walpita, the cook, her daughter and occasionally the driver and the gardener ventured inside, so although the girl and I exchanged smiles and waves it would be a few weeks before we actually spoke together.

After we had been in Colombo a few days, we were to have dinner at the home of a University administrator. The ISLE program which brought my father and our family across the globe, was a joint venture between a consortium of Eastern colleges and two institutions in Sri Lanka, The University of Colombo and The University of Peradeniya in Kandy. The faculty and officials were very pleased with the collaboration and hoped that it would be the start of multiple exchanges between the centers of learning. My mother explained that our hosts were very excited to have us over for dinner and introduce us to some Sri Lankan food.

“I know that you still aren’t used to a lot of the dishes here, but I know you’ll be on your best behavior.  Be polite and eat what is put in front of you. We don’t want to offend these people that are working so hard for us,” she cautioned. I agreed that I would not ask for special treatment while feeling her words were just short of a scolding for an offense I hadn’t even had the chance to commit.

We arrived at the lovely home of our hosts and, as was often the case since our arrival, my sister with her adorably round cheeks and blonde hair became the center of attention. As we sat down to dinner, Janelle was passed from guest to guest so that everybody had a turn pinching her cheeks and making her giggle.  As a ten year old, it was astonishing to me how much adults could talk at the table and drag out dinner. They chatted about the program, and about the details of the student’s arrival. They discussed class schedules and day trips and language lessons. Of course there was talk about the weather and the monsoon seasons and what we could expect. While they droned on, I enjoyed a hopper – not to be confused with the string hoppers I had at the Galle Face Hotel. Hoppers are a sort of bowl shaped pancake that is made of palm toddy and some coconut milk. They can be served any time of day and may come with a fried egg in the middle, with honey or yogurt, or, as in this case, accompanied by curry.  I was sitting quietly when the lady of the house tapped me on the shoulder and arm bangles jingling, motioned me to follow her into the kitchen.

“You are ready for some dessert,” she whispered excitedly. “An American girl like you surely enjoys ice cream, no? I have some vanilla with a special treat for you.  Special for our American guests. You pour some treacle on it – so sweet. Special for you. You eat some now – you don’t have to wait while grown ups talk and talk.”

She ushered me to a seat at a small kitchen table and presented me with a bowl of vanilla ice cream and a tray with what looked like a gravy boat.

“You use as much treacle as you want,” she said handing me a spoon.  “It is sweet. Special from Sri Lanka. You eat some, Baba.”

Over my ice cream she poured a dark syrupy liquid from the boat before she went back to her guests.  I looked down at my dish. The syrup resembled molasses and smelled like a cross between maple syrup and caramel. But, what were those red sprinkles – and why were they moving? I looked more closely and in addition to the sugary brown liquid, my ice cream was covered in tiny ants. I could see them traversing the outside of the container and swimming in its contents as well. I paused. My host had been so excited to give me this Sri Lankan specialty. Mom’s gentle warning not to offend and to eat what was put in front of me echoed in my head.  Cautiously, I took a spoonful making sure the ratio of ice cream to treacle covered ants was in the favor of the ice cream and ate. The ants were very small, but I could still feel them in my mouth – little peppery additions to the sweet liquid. Another spoonful and another. I felt a tickle on my wrist as one of the ants had escaped my bowl and was climbing around the band of my watch. I flicked it onto the floor – I didn’t want to waste it, but surely if I missed one it would be okay.

“Aiyo! Baba!” Suddenly my host was back and whisked the ice cream away. She shouted something to the cook in the other room who quickly came and took my bowl as well as the tray with the treacle.

“It was crawling with ants? Didn’t you see? Aiyo! So sorry, Baba,” she said.  “We get you a fresh one no?”

I was unsure what to say. Clearly treacle was not meant to have ants. Clearly there had been a mistake. I didn’t want to be the dumb little girl who ate ants just because they were put in front of her, nor did I wish to make her feel bad.

“I didn’t notice,” I shrugged. My cheeks flushed. Not wanting to admit my mistake nor embarrass my host, I avoided her gaze and stared instead at the bright red flowers on the vinyl tablecloth which surely matched the color of my face. Treacle it turns out is made from palm sap that has been boiled down to sweet, dark brown syrup and is a delicious addition to a Sri Lankan curd that it often accompanies. Apparently, the ants had been drawn to the sweetness and had nothing to do with the delicacy. When I got home that night I shared the story of how I had been the stupid American who ate ants. My parents got a pretty good laugh.

“You certainly followed my instructions,” Mom chuckled.

Dad empathetically shared with me similar incident when he was in India. A server had brought a small bowl with lemons and water to his table and indicated that he should take it. My father obliged, swallowed the contents, and handed it back to the confused waiter. It was only later after he’d attended other dinners that he realized the water was meant for washing hands.

Ants became a pretty familiar theme over the next few days. Anyone who has spent time in the tropics knows that ants of all shapes and sizes are both ubiquitous and tenacious.  The teething crackers Janelle often gummed sat in a package next to my parents’ bed. It wasn’t long before a lucky scout discovered this bounty and invited a long parade of tiny friends to make their way up their way up the bedside table and into the package. Having resided in India, my parents knew tricks to prevent this kind of infestation and showed me how to place the legs of the table in cups of water which would act like moats and prevent the ants from accessing their prize. However, arriving home the next day, we witnessed a feat of teamwork as a group formed a head to abdomen chain which made a bridge for their counterparts to walk across. Next we placed the crackers in a zippered plastic bag which we moved to another table. The resourceful critters were not deterred. Finally, Mom rigged a line of string from two ceiling beams from which she hung a hanger. She used a clothes pin to attach the plastic bag holding the food to the hanger. The crackers dangled safe for a while, but before we left Colombo, persistent ants had made their way across the string, down the hanger and clothespin, into the bag, and once again were feasting on my sister’s snack. We all agreed the determined creatures deserved their reward.

Sri Lankan squirrels

Our Stay in Colombo was to last six weeks. There would be about ten days for my family to settle in and for my father to make sure things were ready for the arrival of the students. The West coast city of Colombo has always been an important port for Sri Lanka. Many foreign groups including ancient Indians and Moors, and more recently Portuguese, Dutch and British had left their mark there. It was apropos that we landed and began our Sri Lankan adventure in the same place that so many had for centuries before us.

The sound of giggles and sloshing water woke me the next morning – my first full day in Sri Lanka. “Ok, once more, but then I need to wash your hair.” I knew that the splashing that sounded like twenty Olympic swimmers kicking in a heated race was just Janelle excitedly flailing in the bath. I rose out of bed and listened to negotiations regarding the rinsing of shampoo before making my way to the window. Light spilled through the gauze curtains and, where the sun cast its glow on the tile, the floor was already warm.  “You’re up,” Mom said, carrying Janelle wrapped like a burrito with her wet hair spiked up in every direction. “Let’s all get dressed and we can find Dad.  We are going to our house today.”

I maneuvered through breakfast fairly well. Although I was disappointed to see the appearance of string hoppers once again, I did enjoy the surprisingly tiny bananas which were some of the sweetest I had ever tasted. Still, the milk smelled funny to me – not like home – and my stomach had not yet settled. The ride to our new home did not help the situation. My father sat in the front with the driver while I clutched the back of his seat as the driver weaved in and out of cars and people and seriously? Elephants?

The trip to our home for the next six weeks reminded me of the large squirrels that were so ubiquitous in central New York where my family usually resided. You are questioning the leap, but my thought process was this: Our good friend, Terry, worked as a researcher and professor at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station which was an extension of Cornell University. As a graduate professor there, Terry often had foreign students earning masters or doctoral degrees, and so his laboratory, home, and dinner parties were frequented by guests from across the globe. Once Terry and his wife, Anne, had a visitor from Japan, and as we sat at their kitchen table and chatted about where he was from and how long he would be there, he suddenly bolted out of his chair and pointed out the window.  “Did you see that?” he exclaimed running to get a better view. We all asked what was it he had seen? “A creature just ran across the grass.” We wondered if he had seen a neighborhood dog or perhaps even a deer or a fox. Although not common in Anne and Terry’s neighborhood, we had seen such animals before. “Look! Again! Now there are two!” he cried. Our Japanese friend was pointing at two grey squirrels agilely maneuvering from roof to gutter to small branches to swipe seeds from a hanging bird feeder. We all laughed and explained that squirrels were very common and he’d see hundreds more before his trip was over. There are squirrels in Japan, but he was fascinated and surprised to see creatures so close by.  By the time he left Geneva, several months later, I’m certain that squirrels had lost their novelty and blended into the familiar landscape. I wondered if some of the things I was seeing now were the squirrels of Sri Lanka – things that would become common sights over the next year. But on this, my first full day in this country, the onslaught of new images seemed so overwhelming I couldn’t imagine getting used to it all.

We passed a woman in a bright purple sari carrying a stack of plastic containers on her head. The multicolored bowls reminded me of the peddler with his “caps for sale” in one of my favorite children’s books.  A skeletal man peddled in and out of cars on his bicycle which had bunches of orange coconuts draped across the back and sides in a feat of balance that seemed improbable. Three monks in bright saffron robes crossed in front of our van while a fourth man shaded them with a black umbrella. A boy, who could not have been more than a few years older than I, carried a stack of wood at least twice as tall as he strapped to his back.  A bus idled beside us to allow an Ox to pass, and men piled five deep clung to each other and to its door while others poked out of windows as if the bus was oozing humans. Would these sights become as common to me as a squirrel climbing a tree outside my Geneva home? Would I grow accustomed to the new smells and sounds around me? What were those colorful miniature three wheeled vehicles I saw so many of? Why would that man need to carry such a large stack of palm leaves? What was that red juice I saw so many spitting on the side of the road?  The questions were all in my head rather than on my tongue. I don’t want to give the impression that I was an anxious child. I pretty much took things in stride, but these sites were so much more vibrant and unexpected to the things I had grown up with that my head was spinning a bit trying to take it all in. It also should be noted that the car was very hot and as I have already indicated, I was prone to motion sickness – a recurring theme throughout my stay in Sri Lanka thanks in large part to the winding, bumpy roads and less than ideal traffic patterns.

We took several turns from the busiest street and suddenly found ourselves in front of a gated dwelling on Havelock Road. An emaciated dog lay in the driveway in front of the iron gate and seemed inclined to stay until the driver honked several times. As the canine begrudgingly moved aside, a man in white opened the gate from the inside and we arrived at our new home.  The first thing I noticed when we exited the car was the noise – not the noise of the city as one might expect, but the sounds of unseen birds whose calls drowned out much of the cacophony of the nearby street. A flowering bush sported vibrant pink blossoms that resembled hundreds of delicate origami boxes. I knew Colombo was the largest of Sri Lanka’s cities and the colorful garden was unexpected so close to the crowded streets we had just passed. We were quickly greeted by an enthusiastic woman who emerged from the front door and immediately began pinching Janelle’s cheeks and stroking her blond hair.  Mr and Mrs. Walpita were the home owners and were renting their upstairs accommodations to us while we were in town. While my father and mother spoke to the woman I stood by the car and saw along the side of the house a young girl peeking from behind a small stand of bamboo. Her bare legs and feet poked out of the bottom of a once white dress and she smiled shyly as our eyes met and ducked behind the bamboo. She was shorter than I and I guessed a few years younger – possibly six or seven. The loud, happy woman shouted something in Sinhalese and the young girl darted back in the house. “You can meet her at dinner baba,” she said now pinching my cheeks. “She is just your age.  But first we see the inside, No?”

The darkness of the house was in stark contrast to the brightness of the sun outside, and it took me a moment to be able to see. We were to stay upstairs. There were two adjoining rooms that I would share with my family and a small bathroom as well.  A quiet woman emerged from the kitchen with a tray of juices and we drank what I now recognized as passion fruit concoction while we explored our new accommodations.

One of the first things I noticed was that all of the windows on the first floor had bars which together with the gate at the end of the driveway gave me the impression that they were trying to keep somebody out. This I discovered was common across the country and was not a comment on the safety of our area of Colombo. The often decorative window grates became favorite and frequent climbing structures for Janelle. We would often locate her quietly maneuvering her way to the top of the iron lattice, only squealing with joy when she reached the top. We set up our rooms upstairs while Janelle sat on my parents’ bed with her teething biscuits. When my mother came quickly out of the bathroom I knew instinctively from the look on her face that she encountered some kind of unexpected critter. My mother was a brave woman. She had practiced nursing in remote India, was a strong advocate for her rights in a hospital dominated by males, expressed her political views without hesitation… but her weakness was definitely bugs. She would work in the garden and deal with worms, slugs and occasional snakes, but six and eight legged-creatures were unwelcome near her, a fact I exploited nearly every April Fool’s Day with large plastic spiders, beetles and flies that I would deposit on pillows, in freezers and in glove compartments. The offending invertebrate on this day would challenge the bravery of even my father who was our go-to arachnid-slayer. A spider resting on the shower wall had a body easily the size of my fist and eight hairy legs that extended out more than the width of my head.  “Jeepers creepers!” gasped my father as he grabbed a broom he found behind the bathroom door. He aimed to take a whack but when his broom landed, the spider was easily three feet away. Again he came down with the broom and the bristles found only the tile wall. This spider was the fastest beast any of us had ever seen. It was as if it was teleporting from one part of the bathroom to another. After several minutes we were all laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. My father could not come close to the thing which moved so rapidly that we could barely see its legs moving. To this day I have never seen any creature that reproduced the speed of that spindly spider. Finally we devised a plan to coax the animal out of an open window in the bathroom and hoped that it would not return. I certainly hoped spiders would not be my Sri Lankan squirrel equivalents.

Soon the friendly woman’s husband arrived home for lunch. He worked at the University of Colombo where the students would take classes for a time when they arrived. He and my father knew each other from previous trips my dad had taken to scout out locations and set up collaborations. They chatted over lunch which was an array of curries and exotic smells which I was still not accustomed to. Our host family was very accommodating and I was presented with bread and peanut butter which they said they had acquired especially for the young American girl who wouldn’t be used to spicy foods.  For the next week I survived on basically this same meal. Occasionally I was given bread with Miracle Whip as our host family had heard that Americans also enjoyed mayonnaise. When the family asked if I liked ketchup I decided it was time to be a bit more adventurous and learn to enjoy some Sri Lankan cooking before I was introduced to Heinz and Wonderbread.

First Impressions – The skinny on Sri Lanka

It was August 10th, 1982. As we descended into Colombo we could see palm trees and beaches below. The cabin doors opened to a hot sunny August day. Muggy air immediately flooded the plane, reminding us all instantly that we really wanted a good shower. The airport was chaotic and magnified sounds echoed off of the hard tile floors. The smell of sweat and airplane fumes dominated while we maneuvered through retrieving our bags and a confusing Customs line.  At each phase of the process my father, nervous and tired, ran his hands through his hair, and by the time we were outside looking for our scheduled pickup, Dad’s hair resembled the Muppet Beaker’s, sticking up in all directions.

Skinny!  Everything was so skinny. The van sped away from the airport in Colombo with my exhausted family.  An 18 hour flight from Geneva, Switzerland had landed me in a world that was so different than anything I could have imagined. Women in sarongs in shades of purple and faded blue carried baskets on their heads as they walked along the road dangerously close, I thought, to our speeding car. A man squatted at a coconut stand by the side of the road and used a machete on a strange orange coconut that looked nothing like the brown hairy ones I’d seen in the grocery store. A woman straddled a ditch on the side of the road and relieved herself standing up.  Everything appeared so skeletal to me.  The dark skinned Sri Lankans looked so slight compared to the Americans I was used to.  The palm trees stood tall and bare save their bushy tops – So, unlike the full oak and maple trees of central New York.  Even the strange looking cows – which I’d later discover were actually water buffalo, displayed their ribs.  The air was hot and sticky and before we arrived at the hotel I had used the sick bag I’d taken from the plane.

When we arrived at the Galle Face hotel (the first hotel we will be staying at next summer), things began to look up. The sea breeze felt good after the hot car ride and the colonial building appeared clean and welcoming. There was an American flag flapping violently in the brisk winds off the ocean.  I excitedly wondered if they had hoisted it to welcome us.  My mother pointed out that it was flying upside down and we got a good laugh speculating that a navy ship might come to rescue whoever had flown the S.O.S. symbol.  A mustached, uniformed man bowed with palms together in greeting and I instinctively returned the gestured – like I was praying to the gentleman who was not much taller than I. I glanced at my father who gave me a little nod – yes, what I had done was acceptable.  I later wondered if that man I encountered was Kottarapattu Chattu Kuttan who is famous for working for seven decades at the hotel. Starting at the Galle Face in 1942 as waiter and bellboy, he later became an iconic doorman until his death in 2014.

The four of us walked up the steps into the lobby and told the people at the front desk – who were not as skinny, I noticed, as those along the road – of their flag error.   We were taken to a room overlooking the ocean and the expansive lawn of the Galle Face green.   The cool tile of the floor felt good on my feet as I kicked off my shoes.  The large windows were open and the salty air blew the mosquito nets and the curtains and quickly swept our boarding passes off the bedside table.

Despite being tired from our trip, I didn’t want to sleep.  After washing our faces we went downstairs to some chairs on a large open porch.  The breeze was warm, but felt good. I could taste the salt of the ocean in the air. I ordered a Coke.  Not at all foreign except that it came it came in a cute little glass bottle.  Janelle however had something I had never seen – passion fruit juice.  Bright yellow and so sweet you could taste the sugar when you smelled it.  Janelle would instantly take to the saccharine drink which we learned to feed her in moderation or what came out looked strikingly similar to what went in.

While my mother took Janelle up for a nap, Dad and I walked along the Galle Face green with the pink British colonial architecture of the hotel behind us.   It looked like I had imagined the home that young Mary of Secret Garden had been living in before she moved to England. The Galle Face hotel was built in 1864 by a group of British and had been running ever since, making it one of the oldest hotels in Asia. Many famous guests had stayed there, my father explained as we walked across a giant white and black tiled checkerboard towards the sea, including Mahatma Gandhi, John D. Rockerfeller, princes and presidents. It was very bright looking over the ocean.  Despite the rush from the Coke it still seemed I was looking through the fog of sleepy-eyes. I squinted to see if I could make out any land in the distance and asked my father if we could see India from here.  He explained that India was to the North and with the exception of a few small Islands which he hoped to visit some day, it was a straight shot to Eastern Africa.  Thousands of miles of open ocean – and thousands more miles from home. Although it was not yet lunch time we had been up for days, hours? It was all very confusing, but we knew we were tired. We went back to the room where I climbed into the large bed and immediately fell asleep.

I woke to that groggy, jet-lagged feeling that is so familiar to travelers. By the light coming through the windows I knew it was late afternoon. Everything had the warm sticky almost wet feeling of the seaside. Having spent the previous week in Switzerland the surroundings were confusing until I realized where I was and saw my mother sitting with my sister pointing to the waves outside. She smiled and asked how I felt and wondered if I would like something to eat.  I was hungry so after my father showered we went down to find something for an early dinner.  The restaurant I later discovered was called the Verandah Restaurant which was mostly empty at this strange in-between lunch and dinner hour.  We stood at the top of the large stairs overlooking the open restaurant and several waiters quickly descended upon us to assist.  My parents spent more than a year in India before I was born while my father did research for his PhD in religious studies.  They lived in the Northern part of the country and, although it had been almost a decade, they still recalled some of the Hindi they had picked up during their stay. So whenever we went to an Indian restaurant, my parents would order in Hindi. I was always impressed and we often had long conversations with the wait staff. But this time none of us knew any Sinhalese. We were like any tourists coming to the Galle Face Hotel. And, on day one, with only a basic understanding of where I was – I was as lost as a traveler without a map.  Later, I would adamantly deny being a tourist to any who would listen, but for now I needed to rely on the help of the wait staff.

They called my father “sir” and my mother “ma’am”, but my sister and I they called “baba.” My parents asked what I might like and two of the waiters turned to each other and began to debate what I only assumed was what my meal should be. I guess they decided because both pointed to a spot on the menu and shook their heads back and forth like a pair of bobble head dolls. Suddenly my father began to mimic their strange ambiguous wobbling and they seemed to take this as an affirmative.  I had no idea what was going to appear on my plate. I had spent the last week eating mainly cheese and chocolate in Switzerland, but I was sure it would be something different.  What arrived looked like a pile of spaghetti that had not been properly stirred in the pot and had formed a tangled ball. It came with tiny pots of curry and dahl.  String hoppers are made of rice flour that has been pressed through holes and comes out as noodles which are then steamed. They were to become a familiar and enjoyable staple as my year progressed, but at that time I still felt jet lagged and the new pungent smells of curried potato did not agree with me.  I took a few polite bites and washed it down with the drink the waiters had decided on for me, an Elephant House Cream Soda. It was the sweetest beverage I think I’d ever tasted, and to my 10 year old palette it was vastly preferable to exotic turmeric and fenugreek.

I pushed the food around on my plate in the way a young person does to make it appear as though it had been consumed and asked if I could walk around a bit. While my sister gummed her teething biscuits and my parents relaxed, I wandered to the back of the hotel.  The patio behind the hotel led to the beach that at this time was unoccupied.  The sun had set, and lights highlighted a few palm trees near the glowing windows, but only a few steps away the sand and sea were black save the glint of white that would appear each time a wave crashed on the shore. The ocean loomed louder than it had when my father and I had explored it earlier that day, and in my mind the waves towered over me. I could feel the hint of spray on my face and was suddenly terrified that I would be swept out into the blackness. My heart was pounding, but I forced myself to stand there and listen to the sound of the surf and the faint clinking of glasses behind me. This was the beginning of my adventure. It was summer at home and my friends would be swimming and sailing. They would be playing in pools and getting ready for a new teacher in a familiar school.  My parents and I were not yet sure if, or where, I would attend school. I wasn’t sure how long I could survive on soft drinks and courteous nibbles of strange foods. But as I stood facing the shadowy expanse, I decided that I should do as my parents had urged and try to take advantage of the opportunity to explore a new environment. I stood at that spot for what seemed to be ages, but was probably no more than a few minutes until the fear of the black ocean overcame me and I turned and bolted back inside.