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.


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

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