Our extended family in Kandy

If you are still reading this, you may be wondering when we are going to get to Indiana Jones. I’m finishing up describing my day to day routine, and then I promise I will get to some more adventurous or at least memorable moments in Sri Lanka- and yes, some of them include that handsome archaeologist and the actor who portrayed him. 

In addition to Joseph, our cook, as our family settled into our new home in Kandy, several servants joined the household. As I have said before, I had no previous experience with in home help, but it was such a common custom in Sri Lanka that after a little while having a driver, cook, nanny and gardener did not seem at all strange.

Sumanasena was our driver and guide. A tall skinny light skinned man, Sumanasena had a large family and seemed to have an uncle, cousin or acquaintance in every village we drove through no matter how remote. In 1982, the population of Sri Lanka was approximately 15.2 million people and he seemed to know or be related to a large portion of them! He had been a driver in the army, and on an island with so many inexperienced drivers on the road, we felt lucky to have someone who knew his way around the country and around blind corners where one might encounter anything from a passenger bus to a water buffalo to an elephant.

Karuna joined the team to assist with general household management, laundry and to watch after Janelle and I on occasion. Quick to smile and laugh, 22 year old Karuna and I became good friends and I often would help her with her chores while we chatted. Sometimes she would iron and then I would fold while we gossiped. She ironed everything from our cloth napkins to our underwear. Karuna did not like to put anything away with wrinkles. She did not live far and I was always happy to hear the squeak of the gate and the slapping of her sandals against pavement which announced her arrival.

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At first we hired the gardener the previous owners had employed. However, this individual worked for multiple families and could not reliably tend to the extensive gardens on the property. Next, my parents hired Balu who was with us for about a week. One day, he went to apply for a permanent job at a hotel, and sent his step-brother, Wilson in his place. Balu secured the hotel job, and Wilson became our permanent gardener. With machete almost always in hand, Wilson loved to joke around and added a lot of laughter to our home. He aimed to please and we had to be cautious when speaking about things we might desire. If you casually wished that the garden was bigger, when you arrived home there would inevitably be a newly cleared plot of land. I remember a time when Mom pointed out an area where she thought it would be nice to have some plantings. Within a day, Wilson had cleared the area and ushered us over to show us his progress. Grinning he pointed toward what can be described a pile of dirt with a dozen or so sticks in it. Wilson could sense Mom’s disappointment. She explained that we would only be in the house for a year and that she had hoped to see some of the shrubs flowering. “Of course, Madam. Very soon,” Wilson said. He was correct – within a few weeks the spindly sticks were spouting and before we left we had a lovely flowering hedge.

Wilson lived in a small structure behind the house near the kitchen. In the front was a storage section for gardening tools, and in the back were small sleeping quarters. The shed was surrounded by bamboo and had many small cracks. We often heard sounds of Wilson killing an unwanted visitor who had slithered, hopped or crawled into his sleeping quarters. One time we heard the familiar “Thwack! Thwack!” that could be heard when Wilson was ridding his home of pests. But this time, the sound was followed by a crash and more “thwacking.” Minutes later there was a scream and more crashing and finally laughter. We all rushed to find out the reason for the commotion. By the time I arrived at the back of the house, Joseph was standing with a pan and kitchen knife over the severed body of a viper. Wilson had been startled by a gecko which had fallen from the ceiling onto his head. While in the process of shooing the tiny lizard out of his bedroom (Thwack, thwack) he squeezed behind a dresser and was greeted by a large scorpion which came close to getting his foot. As he jumped back to avoid its sting (Crash), he dislodged a pile of baskets and a viper slithered out from the pile (scream). As the snake left the shed, Wilson chased it outside only to find that Joseph had dispatched the snake with a frying pan and a knife (Crash). Joseph was laughing because he had 40 years on Wilson and thought it was funny that he had let out a scream at the sight of the snake. That viper had been living in the bamboo next to our house and had been spotted several times. We were always cautious around that side of the house where the car port was located. Joseph was very satisfied with himself, and it was one of the rare times I saw him laugh heartily.

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In attempts to get Wilson to scream like that again, I bought a rubber snake and Joseph and I would occasionally hide it and listen for the ensuing chaos. Although he jumped at the site of a snake, Wilson had a brave heart. During the riots that rocked the country in 1983, Wilson stood up against angry mob members and put himself at risk to save people he didn’t know. Stay tuned for that story.

Joseph and his dizzying array of dishes

While Dad went to university most days with the students, my mom quickly and efficiently set up our new household in Kandy including hiring several domestic workers. As I have stated before, the idea of employing servants was a completely foreign concept to me. However, having a staff of household helpers was very common in Sri Lanka. All of our friends, including some of our employees, had part-time or live-in help. The first to join the team was Joseph.

Joseph had been the cook for the family that previously rented our home on Sri Pushpadana and stayed on. Joseph was a Sinhalese Roman Catholic. Only about eight percent of the Sri Lankan population is Christian and a majority of those are Roman Catholic. Joseph was a quiet, serious man who smelled of aftershave and cigarettes. He always dressed in a white button down short sleeved shirt with a white sarong which starkly contrasted his very dark skin. A smile from Joseph was a welcome, but not regular occurrence and was mostly reserved for my sister and me.  He was very fond of both of us. Although not a gregarious man, the 67 year old did like to talk about his seven children. Not long after meeting Joseph, a new acquaintance was sure to hear his laments about his 34 year-old daughter who was still unmarried with no proposals in site. Her marital status was quite distressing to him and he shared his woes with anyone he encountered in the hope that somebody would know of a young man in a similar predicament.

October 14, 1982

Joseph is a very good cook – makes terrific soups. It’s good to have someone else take over the kitchen – especially the messy part of cleaning up! There’s no kitchen aide, disposal or dishwasher.

Judith Bloss

The previous tenants of the house had also been Westerners, and Joseph indicated that he prided himself on his ability to prepare meals that were sure to make us feel like we were back in the United States. But, anyone who has spent time in a third world country is likely to have discovered that things are never quite the same as home. Even armed with a well worn copy of the Joy of Cooking, logistics necessitated Joseph make frequent substitutions.  In addition, as a working chef for many years, Joseph would often look at the ingredients for a new recipe or simply a photo and then rely on his experience to create the dish rather than follow step by step instructions. On top of that, Joseph had raised seven children and was used to the inevitable thrift that comes with a large family situation. These combined traits let to some interesting concoctions.

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After one memorable meal, as Joseph cleared our dishes, he told us that he had a special dessert that he had seen in a magazine. The bowl of trifle he brought to the table looked amazing as he carried it in, and I couldn’t wait to dive through the whipped cream layer to get to the cake below. As my dad served us each portions, a strange look crossed his face. The trifle was filled with leftover dessert from the day before and some strawberry jam from the pantry layered with leftovers from the previous day’s main course including peas, ground meat and pearl-sized onions. Joseph was very proud of his thrift, and we didn’t have the heart to tell him that in this particular case the flavor combinations were not ideal.

On another occasion, my family was called to dinner, and Joseph came to the table with two steaming dishes. “Beef burgundy and noodles,” he announced as we sat down the table. It smelled delicious, and I have never been one to shy away from any kind of pasta, so I heaped a large portion of noodles on my plate and covered them with the beef mixture, spooning extra gravy on top. As we chatted about our day, and ate, the lights flickered and then dimmed. This was a common occurrence during the dinner hour when demands on electricity in the area stretched the limits of the local grid. After getting through about three-quarters of my dish, I started to slow down. My face felt flushed, and I wondered if I was coming down with something. “Eyes bigger than your stomach?” Mom asked? “I think I am just really tired,” I said trying not to make a big deal out of how I was feeling. But, in reality, I was feeling hot and a bit dizzy, and the lights seemed to be flickering more than normal. Mom felt my forehead and satisfied I did not have a fever, sat back to give my sister some bananas. She and my father started discussing a student who was having difficulties with her Sri Lankan host family. Mid sentence, Mom’s eyes suddenly grew wide, and she zipped into the kitchen. When she returned she said, “Well Johanna, the good news is I don’t think you are getting sick. The bad news is…I think you might be drunk!” It turns out that Joseph had poured an entire bottle of red wine into his beef burgundy as the last step of his cooking process. With no time for the alcohol to cook off, Joseph had essentially given me a glass of wine with my meal.

Joseph served us Western-style meals at dinner time, but we always enjoyed Sri Lankan fare for lunch. Lunch became my favorite meal and the only part of midday meals that left me dizzy was the array of fresh fruits that was served at the end. One of things that I am most looking forward to when we travel back to Sri Lanka is sampling all of the fresh fruits I have missed for so many years!

Our final push to Pushpadana Mawata

For several weeks we settled into our routine in Kandy. The students began attending classes at Peradeniya University and got to know their host families. It was not uncommon in those early days in Kandy for my parent’s day to include a visit with one student or another who was having cultural, logistical or personal issues with their host family.

October 9, 1982

“I had thought that once we got to Kandy we would be somewhat free of the students since they would be staying with Sri Lankan families. However, it seems that our (Lowell’s) job is that much harder because now rather than residing at once place, they are scattered all over the hillside. So, if someone has a problem or needs medical attention, finding them, taxiing them around and returning them home is an all morning chore.”

Judith Bloss

I attended classes at the international school. My subjects included spelling, English, French, art, creative writing, phonics, grammar, social studies, world news and singing, each taught by a different teacher. On my most memorable day at the school, we were playing tag on the patio outside of our classroom. As I ran from a would-be tagger, I tripped. Skidding across the paved patio, I lost much of the skin off my right knuckles and despite multiple towels the teachers could not get it to stop bleeding and I was sent home. My hand still bears a scar today. I stayed home the next day and accompanied my family to Peradeniya University where the students were taking classes.  While my father and the students went to lectures, my mother and sister and I strolled through the Royal Botanical Gardens.

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The gardens are magnificent and I am excited to return there when our group visits Kandy in 2017. Traveling through the gardens was like promenading through Kingdoms from multiple worlds. There was a cabbage palm avenue where a long span of palms stood at ram rod straight attention and reached far above the surrounding trees as if a hand had pinched the palm at the top and stretch them long and thin. Walking between the rows made us feel like tiny tropical royals dwarfed by the surrounding trunks. In another section, well groomed British inspired topiaries and mazes in multiple shades of green were surrounded by bright purple and red blossoms which invoked the notion we were in a fairy kingdom. There were stands of bamboo that looked like they belonged in the Giant’s realm of Gulliver’s Travels with stalks so thick you couldn’t reach your arms around them. My favorites were the giant fig trees. Gnarled branches grew out from a twisted center and formed a contorted umbrella under which Janelle napped in her stroller. Longer branches then dipped back down to the ground creating inviting benches for visitors. The roots spread like tentacles on the surface of the soil and I attempted to follow them like balance beams. Mom and I wondered how old the giant tree was. “Viase Kiyede? (How old?)” I asked a nearby gardener pointing to the tree. Smiling he began a long dialogue of which I only understood a portion. “Oh you, speak Sinhala. Blah Blah Blah. Tourist?” “I am not a tourist,” I replied. “I live in Kandy.”  “Tourist namae. Kandy innewa.” The conversation was a bit one sided. I wasn’t shy about attempting to speak Sinhala, but my vocabulary was still limited and even phrases I understood were difficult to respond to. I thanked the gardener. “So, how old is it?” asked Mom. “I couldn’t really understand.” It was then that I decided I really needed to dive into learning Sinhala.

My parents quickly hired a Sinhalese tutor who came to our guest house to help us all. She was a lovely woman who made learning the language fun. Bringing baskets of fruit for us to identify and colorful cartoons for me to describe, we would chat as I drank my now daily cup of milk tea. My young brain soaked up her lessons quickly and I was frequently waiting for my parents to catch up with vocabulary and pronunciation. sinhalanotebook

Our tutor said the best way to learn the language was just to be dropped into a situation where I would be forced to speak it. So, I asked Mom and Dad if I could attend a local school. It irked me very much that I could not take Sinhala at the International School. Looking back on it, many of the students there probably moved from country to country so often that it made sense to keep with a language like French or German. But, I felt at the time it was an insult to the local population to be living in their country and not make an attempt to speak the language. My parents promised that they would look into the possibility, but it would need to wait a while.  The other renters had vacated our home in Kandy and the house was ready to move in.

Saturday, October 9, 1982

 “Tuesday we plan to move into the house. The lady who is there now is a real character! She has tried to sell me everything from half burnt candles to clothes pins to some free plastic glasses from an airline. Everything has a price. She has grated me so, I would rather buy it in the market at twice the cost that she’s selling it.”

Judith Bloss

Tuesday afternoon our driver picked me up from school and brought me to the home I would live in for the next year.

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Sri Pushpadana Mawatha (street) was a winding road that lead from the center of Kandy up onto a hill. As we drove around a corner, a white house peeked over the tops of bushes that covered a fence which ended in a gated driveway. The short driveway sloped up towards a car port. The two story stucco home had a front yard surrounded by flowers and blooming bushes. Balconies with green wooden railings ringed the second floor. Our family almost exclusively used the side entrance which led into a fairly dark hallway that ended in the kitchen. One door off the right of the hallway opened to a small room designed to be the cook’s living quarters. An opening to the left led to the dining area which was open to the living room. To the left of the dining room was a small sitting room that had been converted to a work area for folding and ironing laundry. Off that room, a locked door led to a room used as a specialty pantry. That room was used for goodies like large bags of M & M’s, peanut butter, chocolate chips and Hershey bars. These were items not readily available in Sri Lanka, but my parents could purchase them at the commissary at the United States Embassy. Also kept in the storage room were little gifts my parents bought for children which they would carry when we went on trips from Kandy. A shelf filled with little wind up toys, colorful pencils and activity books, and small toys made this room very tempting for a ten year old. Before Christmas and birthdays this room was off limits to me all together. At other times my mother carried the only key and would dole out the specialty items on a schedule.

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Windows on the right side of the living/dining room were covered in the iron grates my sister saw as her personal jungle gyms and looked out over the back garden. The city of Kandy was below and off to the left. A door led out onto a small stone patio. Another room off of the living room was used as an office or an occasional guest room. There was a small bathroom under the stairs which we accessed down a short hall. That was also where the front door was. At the top of the stairs another living area had windows that were high enough to see over the trees and allowed us to see the city below. To the left was another guest room as well as a door to the front balcony. Down the hall were two bedrooms, each with an attached bathroom. My parents had the room on the left which had access to a back balcony. My room on the right overlooked the front balcony. The home was spacious and clean and quickly I felt like I had lived there forever.

Living in Kandy with no tooth decay

The day after our restless, mosquito-filled night in Trincomolee, the group had an itchy ride to Kandy filled with switchbacks as we climbed into the hill country. The roads were often narrow and filled with pot holes. Regularly we would round a corner to encounter a lorry overladen with cargo heading squarely towards us. Both drivers would use their horns and both vehicles would quickly swerve to avoid collision. Or, when the road was too narrow, one driver would yield and pull suddenly to the side. I could not figure out how they determined which vehicle had to give way, but the decision had to be made instantly. Other times we would pass a bus with three times the number of passengers than seats. Around a blind corner the driver would honk and pass the packed bus on faith. My father told us that less than 4% of drivers in Sri Lanka at that time had been driving for more than five years. Janelle was not at all upset by the driving conditions. She would stand on a small ledge separating the front from the back seat and hang on with both hands to bars that extended up between the headrests and sway back and forth. She loved to ride in such a way and grew excited every time she saw we were going in the van. The “bye-bye van” she called it. She was either standing gripping the bars or sleeping on a lap. Only rarely did she ride in traditional seated position. I was not as enamored with long-distance travel as my sister. The thing I tended to say bye-bye to was the contents of my stomach. However, I was becoming more adept at reading the signs of impending carsickness, and the driver no longer even needed to pull over as I deftly had learned to use the window and aerodynamics to my advantage.

When we arrived in Kandy, the home my family was to live in for the rest of the year was still inhabited by its previous tenants who had two more weeks on their lease. So, we settled in an amazing guest house overlooking the Mahaveili River. The accommodations were surrounded by lush jungle with rice paddies and mountains visible in the distance. I had my own large room and my sister and Mom and Dad shared another. Each morning we would be served breakfast on the expansive terrace that overlooked the river gorge. The beautiful dwelling was the film location for the British headquarters in the 1957 Academy Award-winning film The Bridge on the River Kwai starting William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa.

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Although the story takes place in Burma and Sri Lanka, the bridge was built in Sri Lanka. The terrace at our accommodation was covered but open on three sides and was a most amazing porch on which to enjoy our morning meals. I grew accustomed to a daily cup of milk tea. This sweet mixture is often made with white sugar, tea and milk, but sometimes it is served with jiggery, a dark brown lump of sugarcane or palm sap. Either way it was a sweet delicious mixture that allowed me to drink tea on the terrace with adults and feel very grown up as well.

While we stayed at the beautiful guest house, the students were placed with local host families and began to settle in for our extended stay in Kandy. Summer was over now at home, and my friends had already started their 5th grade year. It was time for me to start school as well, and we visited an international school located in Kandy. My mother and I met with Principle Perera and made a plan to begin immediately. The school was fairly small and several ages were grouped together in multi-grade classrooms. My classroom was located on the second floor of the building which was built into the side of one of Kandy’s many hills and opened to an outdoor paved terrace where recess would be held. As I was touring the facility, the administrator asked which language I would like to take and I replied Sinhalese. “We don’t offer Sinhalese, I’m afraid,” she replied. “You can choose between German, French or Latin.” At home I had taken some classes in Spanish and had no experience with any of the other alternatives. I nervously opted for French and was introduced to several students who would be in my class. Many classmates were in Sri Lanka because one of their parents was working on Victoria Dam, a long-term project on the Mahaweli River to supply irrigation and hydro-electric power to the country.

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As I traveled around Sri Lanka, folks I encountered often assumed my family was associated with the undertaking. The fact that I was neither a tourist nor with a family working on Victoria Dam was confusing to many. When I told people that my father was studying Buddhism, there was inevitable enthusiasm and many interesting conversations ensued as most found it fascinating that a person who was not Buddhist would want to learn about the religion. Victoria Dam was not completed until several years after we left the country, but approximately 30,000 people required resettlement because of the enterprise. I recall some grumblings about this, but at age 10, I was never sure about the politics or issues surrounding the project.

So I got to enjoy another trip to purchase fresh school supplies and I began attending the international school. It was clear that many of my classmates were world travelers. Most had lived in multiple countries around the world following usually the jobs of their father. I met a girl older than I with a Japanese father and a Mexican mother. I had a classes with two very blond siblings from Germany, a boy from India, brother and sister twins from Canada and a handful of students from England. All of them seemed to me to have led such exotic and varied lives, yet they all seemed quite at home at this International school in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

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Kandy, located in the hills of central Sri Lanka, was a departure from the coastal city we had just left. Colombo is the commercial capital of the nation and had many modern Western shops and restaurants. Located near the sea, the Colombo topography was largely flat, and although it appeared tropical and lush when I arrived, once we arrived in Kandy I better understood what a real jungle could look like. Kandy is nestled in the hills and spreads out from around a lake and the city center. The beautiful artificial lake was created in 1807 by the last King of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasinha just before he was captured by the British in 1815. The lake and the Temple of the Tooth on its banks are the heart of the city. Before his capture the King was building a decorative wall around the lake now called the cloud wall, but he was unable to finish it. The section of the lake near the Temple of the Tooth was the first place we visited when exploring Kandy center and was always the first place we took guests as well. The afternoon of our first full day in Kandy, we were driven downtown by the guest house driver. Arriving at in the heart of Kandy we waited to cross the street from the Queens Hotel toward the lake.

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The British colonial style hotel building had its grand entrance on the corner and extended down the street in both directions. Its white balconies gave it a palatial appearance. As we waited for a gap in tuk tuk, lorry and bicycle traffic I saw that across the street a stand of trees overhung the walkway along the water. Many of the pedestrians used umbrellas despite the sunny day, and I noticed that when they reached the end of the trees they would leave their umbrellas behind. Other strollers headed in the opposite direction would take the discarded umbrellas as they walked along the path. It took me several minutes to determine that there was a large flock of birds in the trees and that the umbrellas were protection from the rain of bird droppings. I don’t know who provided the initial supply of screens, but one by one each passersby would take protection at one end and leave it at the other. I only saw this phenomenon a few times during my stay in Kandy. I’m not sure if the birds were seasonal or if the umbrellas disappeared, but whenever I walked that short section along the lake my pace quickened.

After we maneuvered past the birds, we arrived at the Temple of the Tooth. The temple was not the most grand we had seen, but to me had a certain magic to it. The white stone contrasted with the terracotta colored roof of the predominant part of the structure, the octagonal Patthirippuwa. It appeared to me that the building was wrapped in lace as the stone walls that surround the complex were replete with rectangular openings that imparted a filigree effect. When we arrived it was just dusk and they turned on hundreds of tiny lights which lined some of the angular architectural features of the building. The small lights made the complex appear to glow pink to me. Although from every picture I see of the famous Buddhist temple, the stones are white, I remember the buildings as pink perhaps from that rose colored radiance it had when lit at night. The place was especially magical during festival times when many of the stone wall crannies were filled with small lighted coconut oil lamps.

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I immediately assumed the temple got its name from the surrounding white wall which was constructed in series of triangular shaped waves. However, I soon learned that the temple of the tooth was so called because it houses a tooth relic from the Buddha. The tooth was recovered from the Buddha’s funeral pyre and was brought to Sri Lanka sometime in the 4th century. The tooth was revered and for many years moved around the country with various kings so that eventually possession of the tooth became a symbol for the right to rule. So, there were temples built around the tooth in several locations in Sri Lanka. The final resting place of the tooth and the most recent temple is in Kandy. The idea of a relic was a new concept for me. I had not grown up in a religious tradition in which relics were important, and here was an entire complex built around the canine tooth of a religious leader. Living in Kandy I saw the temple nearly every day, and the tooth began to take on a kind of mysterious mythical quality, so when my father and I joined a line of worshipers one evening to go in and see the tooth I had a very grand vision of what it would be like. The night we went was packed with pilgrims to see the relic of the Buddha. We waited for some time in line, slowly shuffling towards the entrance with the crowd. Outside Kandian drummers were keeping a beat and the flames from oil lamps could be seen peeking out from the cutouts on the outside wall. We removed our shoes and entered the inner area which usually was cooler than outside, but on this evening was warmed by all of the bodies. Even the usually cool floor was warm under our bare feet.

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The inside of the temple is much more ornate than the simple stone façade. The crowd steadily pushed us down the gold painted arched hallway lined with painted portraits. The air was filled with the perfumed smoke of incense mixed with the aroma of many people crammed into a muggy temple. As we followed the throng towards our destination I saw a large set of ivory tusks framing the entrance. Finally we shuffled past a set of open doors and craning to see, I caught a glimpse of a small golden stupa though a haze of smoke. We were ushered past by the insistent crowd from behind so quickly I wasn’t even certain that what I had seen was the relic but after we passed the golden stupa the urgency of the crowd lessened and thinned. When we had retrieved our shoes I asked my father if he had been able to see the tooth and he explained that it was inside a series of golden caskets inside the small stupa we had seen. “How does anybody know the tooth is really in there if they don’t ever see it?” I asked. My father replied that it didn’t really matter, that Buddhists from all over the world believed it was there and it was an important pilgrimage site. I made a joke about how the tooth should have decayed by now because it was always in Kandy. Dad laughed and so I repeated the joke every time we showed the temple to visitors. I will get a chance to visit the Temple of the Tooth this year with my family. I am not sure the tooth will be on display, so we will likely have to take it on faith that it is there like thousands before us.