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.

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Johanna

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

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