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.


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

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