Foreign Diplomacy

Our time in Colombo was coming to an end. After six weeks of classes, swimming sessions and day trips, I would be sad to leave the place I had grown accustomed to. In preparation for meeting new people and traveling more around the country, we visited some modern shops in Colombo to stock up on thank you gifts for people we hadn’t even met yet. Floor to ceiling windows displayed electronics imported from Japan and Taiwan. The colorful selections were amazing to me with tons of options that chirped, flashed and beeped. I drooled over a small electronic keyboard with pre-programmed international rhythms. Mom smiled patiently as I plucked out Mary had a Little Lamb calypso-style on  tiny keys. “We’ll see. Maybe for your birthday,” she said. “We’ll see always means no,” I replied. The truth is that “we’ll see” gave me more like a fifty-fifty chance, but as a kid, you always have to make the parent think you expect the worst so they want to surprise you with their generosity.

We bought a bunch of colorful wind up toy animals. Turn the tiny white knob and the rabbit and kangaroo did back flips, the frog jumped surprisingly far and the penguin would waddle along to the sound of tiny gears. These toys were huge hits with villagers that we met during our stay, and my parents returned to the store several times during the year. We also purchased two small hand held Nintendo games. mickey-gameIn one, Mickey Mouse hurries to catch eggs hatched from four different hens and place them in a basket before they toppled to the ground.

In another, Olive Oyl tosses items (including spinach of course) off of a pier to Popeye in a boat. He must maneuver to catch them before they land in the water without being socked by his nemesis, Bluto. popeye-game

One game was for me, the other I could gift to the young girl from the kitchen. As my Sinhalese had improved, she and I had begun to have simple conversations usually as I arrived home each day. We would stand outside of the side door and I would show her my notebooks filled with practice Sinhalese script. We never sat together in the kitchen because of the unspoken implied rule that I was not to enter that area. We played the beeping games side by side with the heavy oily smell of fried papadums wafting out of the kitchen. She preferred catching spinach and I preferred catching eggs. When we packed our belongings and left Colombo, I gave her the small game and assumed we would see each other again and reconnect, but we never did. Thirty plus years later I can’t remember her name and I wonder if she is now cooking for a family, perhaps her own.

It seemed everybody wanted to say good-bye to us as we left Colombo and we crammed lots of visiting into our last few days. We were finally able to get a photo of our hosts, the Walpitas. We had been requesting a picture with the couple ever since we arrived, but they wanted to get dressed up and make sure their hair was freshly cut before sitting for a picture. Taking a photo that would be sent to our friends back home was a big deal for them. They posed outside of their home near the pink flowering bush I had noticed when we first pulled up to the house.

A Tuesday night farewell party organized at the home of one of the University faculty was quite an extravagant affair that included singers and drummers. Janelle had taken her first solo steps the day before and loved the music so much that she bopped up and down to the beat on wobbly legs. Many of the students left the gathering on wobbly legs as well I noticed. The next day in class I learned from some of them what the word hangover meant.

The next evening, our family was hosted by the American Ambassador, John Reed. The U.S. ambassador is appointed ambassador to both Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The Maldives is a small archipelago nation Southwest of Sri Lanka and although the country has a very different culture than Sri Lanka, it is the smallest Asian nation, so the U.S. lumps it together with Sri Lanka for diplomatic purposes. I was very excited to visit John Reed, since his full title sounded very impressive – Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to Sri Lanka and the Republic of Maldives. Try fitting that on your nametag. Ambassador Reed had been Governor of Maine as well.

John H Reed with Ronald Reagan 1982  Photo by Mary Anne Frackelman

As the host of the party and an important political figure, there was a circle of eager guests around him at all times. My father waited patiently and then ushered me through the crowd to meet the ambassador. “This is my daughter, Johanna,” said Dad. “Oba Sri Lankava jivat kamatide?” I asked as I shook his hand. (Do you like living in Sri Lanka?). I assumed that someone representing the country would be able to speak the language, but he looked at me as if I had two heads and several of the Sri Lankan business men around him laughed during the awkward pause that followed. It was a lesson in diplomacy on several levels. First, I watched my father diffuse the situation by explaining to Ambassador Reed that I was practicing whenever I could. He smoothed things over so it didn’t seem that I was making fun of Ambassador Reed. Second, I discovered that diplomats only learn as much as they are willing about the country in which they are stationed and that willingness varies greatly from person to person. This was Ambassador Reed’s second stint in Sri Lanka having been previously appointed by Richard Nixon in 1976, he served until 1977. Then, in 1981 he was reappointed by then President Reagan.

When we began our journey to Sri Lanka, we spent a week at the home of another ambassador and friend. Our time with the Swedish ambassador to Switzerland, and the party at the home of the American ambassador to Sri Lanka made being an ambassador seem exotic and fun – a life of visiting new nations and hobnobbing at festivities in fancy houses. I decided that being an ambassador would be the perfect career for me. But, I have discovered again and again over the years that diplomacy is not my strong suit. Things you can get away with as a ten year old are not always excused as an adult.  Still, I think I handled the situation in the electronics store quite well, because that December the electronic keyboard appeared under my Christmas tree.


House Hunters International

After our Sinhala lessons, while we went swimming, the students studied coursework with my father. They would be learning about Buddhism and Sri Lankan history and culture and decide on an independent project which they would research after we left Colombo and present by the end of their stay in Kandy.

While the students had a free weekend, my family took a quick trip to Kandy in the hopes of securing a place to stay when we moved there in a just a few weeks. Mom had placed an ad in the local paper and we were following up on the leads. The road to Kandy in the central mountainous region from seaside Colombo was always an adventure. Numerous hairpin turns and precipitous drops made the journey on the narrow roads unfit for the faint of heart.

Especially exciting were the times when large lorries struggling to ascend the hills and would impede our progress. Seemingly undeterred by the steep drop off to our right, the less than generous width of the road, or the blind turn around which we were hurtling, the driver would honk his horn and pass the truck with a sudden burst of speed. I wasn’t sure what good the tap of the horn would do if another car were already coming around the corner. Mom would look over the edge of the road with eyebrows raised, but didn’t indicate any nervousness to the driver. Dad also sat quietly, but I noticed he was holding tight to the passenger side handholds. Janelle perched smiling and oblivious to any danger on a small foothold gripping the headrests of the front seats. I was less concerned with careening over the edge than with losing the contents of my stomach to carsickness – it was a fight I would not win.

From the response to her advertisement, Mom had arranged for us to tour eight homes during our two day stay in Kandy. House hunting is not an enjoyable pastime for a ten-year old as I did not share my parent’s enthusiasm for discussing closet space and window coverings. However, during our stay we were guests at the home of an American couple and they had a laser disk player, a popcorn maker and somehow several episodes of The Greatest American Hero, so the daytime tedium was well worth it.

“We are up (1,500 feet) in Kandy looking for a house. We have a number of properties, some really beautiful. We are staying at the bungalow of an agricultural expert from America. Real luxury – coffee, ice cream, etc. Johanna is really enjoying herself and so are we. Tomorrow pancakes are promised. That will be nice.” –Lowell Sept 10, 1982

My parents fell in love with a home on Sri Pushpadana. There were questions about its practicality as twice a week a large truck called a bowser was needed to deliver water to the residents. This caused concern until the owner told us “You must be aware a main water line in Kandy ruptured just last week. Only several weeks and it will be repaired.” It turns out there was no water line to the home, so the owner’s statement, while truthful, was completely irrelevant. This fact we did not discover until after my parents settled on this home and negotiated the rental price of $300 a month.

Our Home in Kandy on Sri Pushpadana Mawatha

Final arrangements took another trip (and another sick bag) from Colombo to Kandy for contracts and signatures. We all sat at a bank near the lake in Kandy and waded through the bureaucracy of opening a checking account. I was given candies and soda while my sister was of course cooed over by all the employees.

“Opening our checking account only took an hour and about four people assisting us which we thought was quite an improvement over India.” – Judith September 18, 1982

After opening the account and receiving their checkbook which was more than three times the size of an American one, we delivered the deposit to the renters who suddenly insisted on cash. Taking it in stride my parents returned to the bank and I snagged another sweet while they made out their first giant check out to cash.

Had we been visiting Sri Lanka in 2016 instead of 1982, perhaps you could have watched us on House Hunters International. I can imagine my parents being instructed to walk along the lake in Kandy and cross one of the potential rental properties off the list and then high five excitedly as they agreed on which accommodation was best for their family.  But, this was last century and there were no cameras  following us – not yet anyway, but stay tuned. We did run into some pretty exciting film crews in Kandy later in our adventure. But, for now, after putting down the deposit we went back to Colombo – back to  our routine of Sinhala lessons, swimming at the Oberoi and enjoying our final weeks in the muggy coastal capital.