The students arrive

My first week and a half in Sri Lanka was over. To a ten-year-old several weeks represents a significant amount of time to adjust even to such a vastly different culture.  In less than fourteen days I had transformed my diet from peanut butter and bread to bread-fruit and rice and had opened up to the sights and sounds around me. I had only scratched the surface of what I would learn and experience, but I felt like an expert. When the day came for the students to arrive from the United States, I explained to my parents that I felt it was important I accompany them to the airport to meet their flight. I wanted to reassure these new arrivals that any anxiety they were experiencing was normal and that they would get used to the unusual smells, hot climate and colorful markets.

Nineteen bleary-eyed students emerged from around the corner where they had been through customs at the Colombo airport. They wheeled, shouldered, and dragged their belongings. Some seemed to have packed all they possessed in coordinating designer suitcases while others carried modest assets on their backs. Although all appeared tired, their looks were also varied. There was the woman in the Indian skirt, not much taller than I, taking three steps to every stride the tall blond man in khakis and Izod polo took towards us.  A woman with well-coiffed, frosted-tipped hair appeared to have recently applied make-up and was getting assistance from a casual bearded man who may not have combed his hair in weeks. All gathered around my father whom they had met at various orientations at their colleges and we exited the airport to meet several vans which were waiting. As we loaded the vans, one of the female students held onto one of the circular support poles of the awning and spun around it repeatedly. “Aren’t you getting dizzy?” I asked. “I just like to spin,” she replied. “I do it a lot when I’m nervous.”

“I’ll ride in her van,” I whispered to my father, “I think she is scared.” On the way I pointed out various landmarks I was now familiar with as well as some of the things I had thought strange when I first arrived. “Those orange things the man is carrying are coconuts. That is a stuppa – it is a Buddhist temple. It might smell funny now, but you will get used it.” I must have sounded like a know it all, but I wanted to make them feel comfortable. A tall skinny woman with dark hair thanked me when we arrived at their dorm and said she hoped to see me in class. I laughed and said I was only ten, but later my father said that my mother and I should at least sit in on the intensive Sinhalese classes so we could learn some of the language. Back home when I was too sick to go to school but my parents both had to work, I would occasionally sit in the back of my father’s lectures. The idea of attending a college class seemed like fun to me, and then perhaps I could say a few words to the mysterious girl in the kitchen.

The students had very little time to adjust to their new surroundings, for they were to get a crash course on Sri Lanka with a ten day tour of the island after only a few days to adjust to jet lag. We piled in several vans and toured much of the country in just a few days.

A drive along the South West coast brought us to some beautiful beaches.  Just offshore at one stop were a host of strange skinny rickety wooden crosses. Precariously roosting atop the stilts were fishermen with slender bodies resembling their perches using fishing poles. I never witnessed how they maneuvered up to their post. The dozen or so bare-chested men with turbans were silhouetted against the darkening waters with the setting sun, each with a bag dangling from their seat which looked as if it would snap with the next crashing wave. The poles were lashed together in such a primitive way that the scene looked like it could have been an ancient art repeated for centuries. However, we were informed that the famous Sri Lankan stilt fishermen that grace the cover of nearly every Sri Lanka tourist publication had only been using this technique for about 40 years. At the end of World War II, the rocky coastal fishing locales became overcrowded, and men moved slightly off shore to secure better fishing spots. These rodmen would utilize airplane and ship wreckage discarded from offshore conflicts to anchor their fishing poles. Eventually, some began to fish from permanent stilts they planted in the coral reefs. Father’s passed their roosts to sons, and so a tradition began. The men balanced so dexterously on the meager wooden crosspieces but the job did not appear comfortable or terribly profitable. The small bags that hung below did not overflow and the fish they did catch seemed very small. Still it was a beautiful, intriguing site and I could understand why tourists would make the trip to see the unusual living statues in the waves.

stilt fishing

Other fishermen that made an impression on me were those along the Western coast around Negombo.  Out at sea we saw squared sails attached to outrigger canoes called oruvas. The masts of these vessels and the ropes that extend from the sails appeared too small to withstand the forces of the wind and waves, but dozens of them could be seen searching the water for fish. The beaches were covered with silvery mats of drying fish arranged in sparkling rectangles along the shore.  I loved the shape of these unique boats and we purchased a carved wooden replica with a collapsible mast that I displayed on my shelf for many years. When I returned to the United States, I saw a Duran Duran video (Save a Prayer for me Now) and immediately recognized the fleet of oruvas as well as the stilted fishermen and knew the band had been in Sri Lanka. Additional research led me to discover that Duran Duran made several videos in the country which they filmed in 1982, the same year we arrived in the country.


Currying favor

After about a week, I settled into our new routine in Colombo. After my first days of surviving on peanut butter and bread, I became more and more adventurous at lunch and dinner time and grew even to enjoy the string hoppers that I had only endured during my first dinner on the island.

Sri Lankan cuisine is based on rice and curry.  With my parents history in India, I had been introduced to Northern Indian cooking, but Sri Lankan cuisine more closely resembles Southern Indian fare and of course has its own specialties and flair. When you refer to the meal one always says “rice and curry” and we found almost every meal had at its center a giant platter of one of the more than dozen varieties of rice grown on the island. In smaller side bowls were varieties of curries- Vegetable, meat or fish curries with a coconut base. My favorite quickly became white potato curry (Ala Kiri Hodi) a pale yellow mix of well softened potato chunks bathed in coconut milk and a mixture of spices.  Other of my beloved curries like dhal curry (parippu), chicken curry (Kakul mas), sour fish curry (ambul thiyal) are generally served with sides of sambol. Sambols are like spicy pickled dishes that add spicy flavor when mixed with the dish. Sweet sambol (Seeni Sambol), made from onions, was one of my favorites, but the most common one I had with almost every meal was coconut (pol sambol). A mixture of coconut and chili and sometimes onions and other spices, pol sambol can range from a soft pink to a fire engine red depending on the amount of spicy chili added to the mixture.  I began my stay at one end of the spectrum and worked my way up to more intense heat. There were times when I made the mistake of adding too much pol sambol – only mouthfuls of plain rice could take away the tingly burning of my tongue and lips.

Mornings were best when our hosts served a sweet milkly rice dish  (Aluwa) mixture of rice and sugar syrup  that tasted like a sweet rice pudding cake. The cook would serve it cut into traditional diamond shapes which she would arrange in the shape of a flower and serve with bananas. It is often served at auspicious times such as the first day of the month or weddings, but cook made it special for me when she saw how I learned to devour it.

The delicious meals were made all the more enjoyable because utensils are optional. Sir Lankans eat with their hands, and we quickly adopted the same routine when dining on local fare. Ones hands are the ideal and most convenient instruments with which to mix the right amount of rice with curry and sambol. Our hosts instructed us to use only our right hand and that an experienced eater would not mess their fingers past the second knuckle. I played a game with myself trying the keep my fingers as clean as I could using my thumb to push the perfectly mixed ball of flavors into my mouth.

The spread often included a heaping plate of pappadam – wafer thin, crispy discs of fried seasoned dough that I would crumble on top of the meal to add the perfect crunch to each bite.

And the fruit – oh the fruit! Each meal would end with a large plate of brightly colored fresh harvest arriving at the table. Sri Lanka boasts a cornucopia of tropical fruits. These include staples that I had known from the States like pineapple, banana and mango but with all the extra sweetness and color that come from being freshly picked. More than a dozen varieties of bananas will spoil you against your mundane Western supermarket bananas forever. There are super sweet tiny bananas, purple bananas, as long as your forearm bananas, cooking bananas, chewy bananas and grow right in your yard best in the world bananas. Widely cultivated across the country, bananas are found in pretty much every market and roadside stand. Banana leaves are often used as plates and even the stems and flowers are used in cooking. Mangos also appeared on almost every fruit plate and Janelle’s hands were perpetually sticky from enjoying their goodness.

We were also introduced to some of Sri Lanka’s more exotic offerings. There were Sapodillas which taste a bit like a slightly fermented or sweetened pear. Jackfuits with their spiky exteriors resemble giant hedgehogs and can grow to be up to eighty pounds – about what I weighed at the time! They are often used in curries or fried or roasted. The both sweet and sour rambutan is a prickly ball that looks like it should be found on a coral reef. The  mangosteen is very popular when in season. The dark purple hard covering is removed to reveal a surprising white segmented fruit inside which when ripe are extremely juicy.

Durian was undoubtedly the most unusual fruit we encountered, and in our travels we found that Sri Lankans basically fell into two camps – durian lovers and those who despised the fruit. Often banned on buses and trains, durian has a very pungent, rotten, sulfur-like smell that cannot be mistaken once you have been exposed to it. Inside the formidable outer spiked husk is what is described as sweet buttery flesh. Our host mother thought the fruits were vile and would not allow them in the house, but her husband loved them and insisted that we try some. We sampled durian in the front yard with our host mother shaking her head in the doorway. I landed squarely with my mother in the anti-durian camp as I felt the flesh tasted like someone had made butter out of sneakers.

There are too many other fruits to mention. My mother so loved the creamy, fresh, readily available avocados that she decided that she would go on an avocado diet until she looked up the calorie and fat content in The Joy of Cooking. We also grew to love stopping at roadside stands to drink coconut water especially on long dusty drives to my father’s research sites. Men in sarongs squatted beside the road in the shade of their small thatched huts where orange bunches hung like oversized grapes. After several swift dexterous chops with his machete and the insertion of a straw, we would be presented with refreshing coconut water in a perfect travel container.

What’s in a name?


“That is a big name for a little girl” is a phrase I often heard as a young child when I would be introduced to adults. I was named after my paternal great-grandmother. Although I never got to know her personally, I heard many stories around the dinner table from her son, my grandfather, Waldo. One of 9 siblings, Grandpa was born in 1905 on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. He spoke of great-grandmother Johanna’s twice weekly baking sprees and how her cooking filled the house with the smells of fresh bread that had to feed a household of as many as 15 people. He remembered his mother digging up potatoes in the fields until her contractions were so strong that she came in the house to give birth to one of his siblings only to return the next day to her work in the fields. We learned how she cared for the sick during the flu of 1918 and refused to learn to drive or initially ride in that crazy car one of her sons brought home and said was the wave of the future. I had no doubt that she was a strong woman and that sharing her name was an honor, however it was not a common name, and was often mispronounced. My family pronounces my name with a soft “a” as in arm or father – Jo-Ha-Na. This did not come naturally to the western New Yorkers I grew up with who relished the nasal harder “a.” More often than not I was called Joe-Hannah with an “a” sound like in hat or nasty. I have also mistakenly been called JoAnn or Joanna often enough that I turn my head when those names are called. But, as difficult as my name was for many, I didn’t develop any nicknames until I was much older. With correct or incorrect pronunciation, I was always Johanna.

While in Sri Lanka, however, I collected many names. I was Baba, or the Sinhala word for Baby or young one among many adult circles. If I was with my younger sister, Janelle, I became Akka, older sister. Our gardener sometimes called me Nungi which means little sister since that what was our relationship was like. And, in the markets in Kandy, some of the vendors called me Tourist Namae which basically translates to “Not a tourist.” “Here comes not a tourist!” they would joke with each other after they heard me protest again and again that I lived in Kandy and should not be mistaken for a vacationer. Each of the nicknames gives you a glimpse into the relationship with the person who bestows it upon you.

As an island and as a nation, Sri Lanka has also had a long list of identities each of which gives us a slice of its long and varied history. Speak to multiple Sri Lankans and you will hear as many former names for the country. Some say the original name was some derivation of Tamraparni which may have come from Sanskrit for copper-colored from copper hued beaches on which early settlers landed. Still others think the name means red or copper-colored leaves. Another early name for the island derived from an ancient Tamil word, Cerentivu. Each time a trader or invader came to the island, the native name would make its way back to their faraway land changed by lazy tongues and misunderstandings. Or, is often the case when somebody falls in love, visiting tradesmen would give the island their own pet name. The Arab vendors called the nation Serendib or Serendip. This name gave rise to Horace Walpole coining the term serendipity in at 1754 letter to mean a happy accident or a pleasant surprise. I always felt this an appropriate name because of how much I happily and unexpectedly discovered during my stay in Sri Lanka. Other names included Helabima and Zeilan, which the English changed to Ceylon. While invaders and merchants called the island many things across the globe, the native population ultimately settled on Lanka. I have heard from inhabitants both that Lanka means island and beautiful and have read books which claimed both as well. Whatever the original meaning, both certainly apply to the nation. The prefix Sri, was added in 1972 when the name was officially changed to Sri Lanka. Interestingly, the honorific prefix is said by some to mean holy, but by others it is said to signify beautiful. So, Sri Lanka may actually mean “beautiful beautiful.” If you think that is too idyllic, the real official name is the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. I am sure, like me, the people of Sri Lanka are used to their country being called the wrong name and it is certainly “a big name for a little island.”

Settling in to life in Colombo

For one and a half weeks my family and I settled into life in Colombo. My father, Lowell, spent a lot of time at the University in Colombo planning coursework and phoning colleagues at Peredinya to finalize host families in Kandy. On Thursday – I remember it was a Thursday because it was a good day when I had no worries about Malaria drugs – we got a day pass at The Oberoi hotel to use their pool. The Oberoi was to my mind an ultra modern hotel that went, at the time, for the outrageous cost of $80/night. The building was taller than others I’d seen during my stay in Colombo. It was a large windowed block of concrete that had none of the colonial flair of the Galle Face, but many modern amenities. Each floor ringed around a central open courtyard, so that standing in the lobby you could look up and see all the way to the top of the structure. Shops in the lower level sold jewelry and batiks and also chic Western apparel.  It seemed wildly extravagant to me. The reception staff was friendly and the pool was amazing. We bought Janelle a pair of bright orange inflatable water wings at one of the fancy shops. On our way out my mother, Judith, organized pool privileges for the rest of our stay, and we went swimming at the Oberoi almost every day for the next six weeks. I would order French fries from the pool side restaurant – small shoestring crunchy ones – my favorite. I learned that the ketchup they served was spicy rather than sweet like at home, but the snack, along with the egg sandwiches they served, became my daily lunch. Some of the students followed our lead when they arrived and my father felt it was a mistake to allow them to isolate themselves in such a Western-oriented environment. He felt it delayed their immersion into Sri Lankan culture. This may be true, but I have many fond memories of splashing around with my family at the Oberoi.


Despite our time at the fancy hotel, we did learn our way around Colombo. We began to understand some of the mysterious images that had greeted me when we arrived. The strange brightly colored three-wheeled vehicles that had looked to me like a shrunken car that had mated with a tricycle I learned were tuk tuks which could get you where you wanted to go more quickly than a car and with more of an amusement park flair. Just when we would think we were stuck in traffic, that we couldn’t possibly fit in between the lory and the sedan stopped in front of us, the tuk tuk driver would somehow read our minds and take on the challenge. Riding in a tuk tuk is most certainly a “keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times” adventure. Mom decided after a few harrowing experiences that we would drop dad off at the university and use the car and driver to get around.

Sri Lankan tuk tuk

I learned that the red juice the old women were spitting on the side of the road was the remnants of the betel nut they were chewing. It only took one unfortunate, sticky incident while wearing sandals for me to learn the importance of reading the movements of the squatting grey-haired women chewing their drug.

Mom learned quickly, as many had before her, including Marco Polo, that the island had many gems. Her father at home worked at a jewelry store and had some gemology knowhow. The two exchanged letters and toyed with the idea of importing some gems for them to sell together back in the states. Although we explored lines of fruit vendors and noisy fish markets and began to get a taste for the country, most our early shopping adventures were slightly less interesting.

“There is a new supermarket here and we bought Sugar Pops for breakfast, canned hot dogs for Janelle and even Pringles Potato Chips. We can even get Pampers there although they are expensive….The accommodations are very nice. We have two bedrooms, a bath, a small laundry area and a balcony where we can hang our laundry. I’ve decided to do my own laundry as when the dobhi (washerwoman) does it, it all comes out the same color – gray! We share a sitting room with the rest of the family although they rarely use it except in the evening to watch TV.

The TV is limited – only from 6pm till 10pm each day. Some programs are in Sinhala or Tamil, but quite a few are in English. Last night we watched a variety show with Frank Sinatra and friends. We’ve also seen The Jeffersons and tonight Charlie’s Angels is on…

The weather has been hot and humid, but Lowell says it’s much cooler than when he was here in June. The nights have been cool or less warm depending on one’s view point but with the fans running it’s possible to sleep.

We go to bed quite early (9:30pm) as the lighting in these homes is not very good for reading. We have a single bare bulb in each room and only one electrical outlet in each room so you’d have to choose between a lamp and a fan, and that’s hardly a choice. Another reason for an early retirement is the birds are up about 5:00 am singing outside our window. And this one, called a Koel is as good as any alarm clock! And once Janelle is awake we might as well all be up!”

– Judith August 16, 1982

Waking to the sounds of tropical birds, exploring Colombo during the mornings, swimming in the afternoons… our Sri Lankan adventure was off to a wonderful start.

(To listen to the alarm that woke us each morning click here)