Iridha School

It was a warm Sunday (Iridha in Sinhalese) in Kandy and my new friend, Sanjee came to the gate to pick me up at 8:30am. We attended Hillwood together and had only recently discovered that our homes were within walking distance of each other. She waited for me at the base of our driveway and we waved goodbye to Wilson as he closed the metal gate behind us. I had never seen Sanjee out of her white school uniform. Her hair, always in two neat pigtails at school, was loose down her back and a bright orange headband was striking against her shiny black hair. We started down the walking path that lead towards Kandy. Sanjee had invited me to attend her Sunday School. When our class split each day for morning prayers she trotted down the stairs with the Buddhist girls while I followed girls headed towards the chapel. Today, I was going to attend the religious school at a small Buddhist temple close to her house. Our leather sandals both made the same snapping sound against the stone steps as we walked towards our destination. I thought that our principal in Geneva, Mrs. Peters, would hate the sound of flip flops and marveled at how different the dirt and stone path surrounded by jungle was from the industrial halls at West Street elementary school.

In Geneva my parents and I occasionally accompanied my grandfather to the First Baptist Church, an impressive brick and limestone presence on Main Street. With its square tower, colorful stained glass and warm honey colored wood accents, it was a welcoming place to go on occasion. As a young, only sometimes attendee, I had been recruited now and then to light or snuff out the candles before and after services. This meant I got to go through the closet in the room off of the sanctuary and find a robe that would not drag on the floor. I preferred the older cotton robes to the newer polyester ones.  It was a pleasant enough place to spend a once in a while Sunday, but I had been increasingly anxious attending because older children were encouraged to become members and be baptized. Unlike many of my friends from other denominations who were baptized as infants, this ceremony involved full submersion in front of the entire congregation in a pool that was under the pulpit. The idea terrified me. I worried not about my eternal soul, but about the water that would get up my nose and the time I would need to spend with dripping wet white robes clinging to me while the service continued.

There would be nothing like that today. Sanjee’s temple was just off of the path. We entered through a gap in the trees marked by colorful flags and headed towards a small covered but open classroom. The teacher met us and welcomed me as we left our shoes at the door with dozens of other small pairs belonging to other children attending the school. The teacher immediately reminded me of my Sunday School teacher in Geneva. Their look was very different of course. At home, my teacher was short and round, with orangey red hair and plump red checks. This instructor was lean and dark-skinned. In Geneva, the teacher waddled around with a denim jumper with apples embroidered on the pockets which she wore tentlike over a red turtle neck. The Kandian woman had a pink and orange Sari with gold threads and a long black braid which reached to her exposed midriff. While the two women looked as different as could be, their demeanor was strikingly similar. They both spoke in hushed but excited tones about their subjects and both patted me on the head and smiled. Sanjee had to translate some of the lesson, but I got a majority of the story about the Buddha and his meditation under the Bo tree. It was a story I had heard before as we had several batiks and statues depicting the scene around our home in the United States. The main point of the lesson seemed to be pretty much the same point as any Sunday School lesson I had in the States- be nice to people was really what it boiled down to. Just like at home, the session ended with a snack – slices of mango and coconut water rather than Nilla wafers and milk.  During our snack we were given colored pencils and a coloring page. While I colored the cross-legged Buddha under a tree I remembered our teacher in Geneva pinning to the bulletin board baskets we had made from woven construction paper with cutout fish that we had colored with crayons. Sunday School is the same everywhere I determined.

After snack, I followed Sanjee to a small shrine where the class briefly sat with a monk. Although I recognized some of the prayers from ceremonies I had attended with my Dad, I did not know the incantations and as the students all chanted I focused on the wrinkles on the old man’s bare head. “Dhammam saranam gachami. (I go to the Buddha for refuge) Dhammam saranam gacchami (I go to the Dhamma for refuge)…” As the monk chanted I could see the muscles move on top of his head with the subtle movements of his jaw.

One by one the students all took turns going around the corner to a covered statue of the Buddha. The monk indicated it was my turn and smiling handed me a white lotus flower with browning edges. Cupping the flower in my hands I walked into the covered structure. The Buddha sat with his eyes closed, one hand draped across his right knee and the other folded peacefully in his lap.  Like the others I had seen before me, I placed the flower on the ledge in front of the statue, sank to my knees and sat back on my feet. I could see several chips in the paint on the Buddha’s saffron robes. The next move I knew was to bow prostrate in child’s pose. I paused and my back tensed. Images of Baptist Sunday school flashed through my brain as did the image of the fiery finger of God etching the Ten Commandments in stone as Charlton Heston shielded his eyes. “You shall have no other gods before me….” boomed in my head. I had visions of people getting swallowed up in a pit of burning rock and fire when they prayed to that golden calf. But as I sank to the cool floor no bolt of lightning came from the sky. I inhaled the smell of the incense, my back relaxed and I felt completely at ease. I didn’t know how to pray or what to say, so I wished that my family would be healthy before I got up and joined Sanjee.

It is strange to think that children all over the world are snacking together with mild mannered Sunday School teachers who teach them to be kind while coloring pictures of their gods. Then, some of these same children grow up to kill in the name of that religion. What do the soft-spoken Sunday School teachers think of that? Why is one coloring book any better than another? My year in Sri Lanka afforded me the chance to see several religions up close, an opportunity that I realize not every person can have. Since Sri Lanka I have also had the opportunity to attend Jewish religious school as well.  I often wonder if more people had these kinds of cross-cultural immersions if religion would be less divisive. Sadly, the older I get the less optimistic I am that anything could make a meaningful change in the way that humans treat each other in the name of their gods. However, on the warm Sunday, my ten year old self was not thinking so globally as Sanjee and I walked home to the clomp of our sandals and kissed each other on both cheeks at the gate to my home.

p.s. Speaking of Charlton Heston…Did you know he was in a 1954 adventure film called Secret of the Incasheston and fordHeston’s character, Henry Steele, searches for lost Incan treasure at Machu Picchu and this adventurer is said to be the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones. Stories featuring Dr. Jones are coming soon.





Nun Sense

There are experiences that are difficult to describe to others. How often have you had a dream that profoundly affected you in some way? Perhaps you’ve had a nightmare that left you tight-chested and anxious long after you woke. Yet, when you describe the dream to another they can’t understand why the images you saw in your sleep were so distressing to you. Or, perhaps you’ve sat on a mountaintop or enjoyed an ocean view and had a moment of inspiration or profound calm and when you attempt to share your experience you cannot find the appropriate words to match your feelings. No matter how close you are to a spouse, a sibling, a child, a friend… there are certain moments that you will never be able to adequately share with them. These are moments when the circumstances and emotions that you feel are simply unique to you and you alone. I had such a moment in Sri Lanka, and although it may be fruitless, I will attempt to describe it to you.

In addition to his duties of shepherding the students as the ISLE program administrator, my father spent much of his time on the island conducting research. He had received a Fulbright-Hays grant and was investigating the history and changing role of Buddhist nuns in the nation. The saffron-robed female renunciants could be seen across the country, but were not as common as Buddhist monks whose history and place in the culture was well established. Hundreds of years ago there were ordained Buddhist nuns on the island, but their order had died out and had only recently been reestablished. My father was exploring the latest history of these nuns, known as dassasilmattawa, and their connections to orders in Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand. He was exploring the movement from the late 19th century with a focus on its rapid growth in the 1950s and was investigating the influence of a few key individuals who had stimulated this resurgence.

One very interesting and key individual was Catherine deAlvis who was from a prominent wealthy, coastal Anglican Sri Lankan family. In the late 19th century, she converted from Christianity to Buddhism and traveled to Burma where she was ordained as a nun and became sister Sudharmamachari. She returned to Sri Lanka and continued to move in influential circles. In 1907, she opened a nunnery with the assistance of Lady Edith Blake, wife of the British governor. The nunnery bears Lady Edith’s name and is still in existence today.


Sister Sudharmamachari died in 1939, but over the years she ordained many women, and my father was searching for information about this fascinating figure who had essentially brought back to life an extinct order of nuns. There is a lot of interesting information about her to be found with a simple google search. Most Westerners in Kandy were involved in a large hydroelectric project, so when people discovered that my father was studying Buddhism rather than river currents, he became a topic of conversation. As such, he was often approached with tips about potential leads in his investigation into the history of the nuns. Most of the time when he went into the field to interview someone, he traveled with a Sri Lankan woman who was writing her dissertation on the dassasilmattwa and she would assist him as translator. However, on one particular day, she was not going to accompany my father, so he asked me to go with him to investigate a potential source of information. He had been told of an elderly nun who was living in a nearby village close to a Buddhist monastery.  She was not well and monks were supporting her and assisting with her care and alerted my father to her presence. The monks thought that she had studied with and possibly had been ordained by Sister Sudharmamachari.

So, Dad and I woke early one morning to take the trek to a small village. Our driver, Suamanasena asked for directions several times along the dusty road we were taking. It didn’t matter how remote we got, Suamanasena inevitably would come across an acquaintance or relative or at the very least an acquaintance of a relative. This day was no exception and a friend of a former army buddy Sumanasena happened upon helped us navigate to our destination. We arrived before lunchtime and although the sun was not yet at its peak, the day was stiflingly hot. The monk who had alerted my father to the presence of the nun greeted us. He had arranged that one of the monastery workers would take us where we needed to go. It hadn’t rained in some time and we walked through dry brush which scratched my legs and sometimes tugged at the skirt I was wearing. There was no breeze, and as we walked we breathed in the dust kicked up by the person in front of us. Clearly word of the western father-daughter duo coming to interview a frail old nun had spread through the area. Curious eyes could be seen peering from windows and children ran out to watch us pass. The heat was oppressive. We passed a mud hut with a thatch roof that was guarded by a skinny dog who lay in the dirt yard and barely lifted his head and gave a half-hearted bark before resting it back on his paws. At one home an old man sat shirtless in the shade of a tree and slowly chewed betel nut. The purple stained dirt around his chair suggested that he spent a lot of time at this pastime. The walk took probably 30 minutes and as we waded through high grasses and brush, our guide indicated to me that only two weeks before a young woman had been walking the same path and had been bitten by a snake and died. I turned to translate to Dad and simply said, “He says we need to keep an eye out for snakes.”

Finally we came upon a small hut and a young woman came out to greet us. The hem of her pale yellow flowered dress was worn and the fabric clung to her in the heat as she explained to us in concerned tones that we had likely wasted our time on our journey. No one knew for certain the age of the nun inside but they estimated that she was over 100 years old. She had suffered a broken hip, could no longer walk, was nearly blind and rarely spoke except to ask for water or for assistance. The nun’s caretaker apologized again and said we were welcome to speak with the elderly nun, but that she doubted we would get any coherent information.

The dwelling where the old nun resided was a two room structure with a kitchen in back and a small all purpose room in front. Two small windows provided the only light. There was no electricity. We followed the woman in yellow and stepped hesitantly and quietly into the home the way one does when visiting an infirm person. The room was fairly dark and temperature inside must have been at least 20 degrees cooler than outside and I felt an immediate chill.  Light filtered in from one of the side windows and dust could be seen dancing in the air. Following the shaft of light to the far side of the room, we could make out what appeared to be a pile of rags. A single sepia photograph hung on the wall; the rest of the chipping plastered walls were bare.

We had barely entered the room when the pile of rags in the corner began to stir. The old nun lay under a pile of blankets on a thin woven mat on the floor. She sat up as best she could and began to call out. “Amma! Amma! Aiyo mage mave! – Mama! Mama! Oh my mother!” The woman in yellow went to her side “E mama. – It’s me,” she said in calm tones and explained that we were the visitors she had told her about. The nun shook her head, struggled to prop herself up on one elbow and pointed past her caretaker directly at me. “No, no, but she is here. Mama!” And this is the part in the story where I fear I will not be able to adequately explain to you what happened or how I felt. As a child I had never felt particularly comfortable around elderly folks. I had paid the requisite visits to great-grandparents and distant relatives in nursing homes whose relationship to our family were not always clear to me. I endured the cheek pats and questions about school, and said thank you for the hard candies from the glass jars they offered, but I always felt somewhat uncomfortable. However, when the nun pointed to me, I felt completely at ease.

I went to the side of the old woman and knelt and took her hand. She relaxed back onto her mat. I could feel each bone and tendon through her paper thin skin. She drew my hand to her cheek and it was wet with tears which rolled down her deeply wrinkled cheeks. For a moment, she just lay there with her eyes closed holding me close. The light though the window heated my back as I sat there watching her. I felt a sense of warmth and calm wash over me as I knelt on the floor beside this frail woman. When she opened her eyes, the old nun began to speak again. This time she was calm and coherent. She explained that as soon as I walked through the door she recognized me as the reincarnation of her mother who had died many years ago. She told me how much she loved and missed me and that it was wonderful to see me again. “It is wonderful,” I said. Everything this old nun in a tiny hut in a remote village in Sri Lanka said to me, a ten year old girl from upstate New York, about how we were once mother and daughter made perfect sense to me. I could picture walking barefoot to the village well and sitting around a fire with her at my side. I felt completely connected to this woman who was born in the 1800s and had dedicated her life to Buddhism.

My father and the woman in the yellow dress just stood and watched the nun and I speak for some time. She told me that she hoped that she had been the kind of good person that I wanted her to be. She went back and forth between acting as teacher, explaining to me reincarnation and acting as daughter and expressing her love for me. Then, she started to speak about her life as a nun. Dad asked her questions through me and sometime with help from the woman in the yellow dress. She had been a student of Sister Sudharmamachari and she pointed to the picture hanging over her head. She insisted that we take the photo of her ordination class with us when we left. My father protested – it was literally the only thing adorning the walls of the simple home. But, she insisted.


After a time, the old nun grew tired and we realized it was time to go. I bent and gently kissed her cheek and we said goodbye. The woman in yellow told us she had not seen the old nun as animated or coherent in some months and thanked us for coming. She was planning to tell the monks at the monastery about my connection to the nun.

Several months later dad and I returned to see the old nun once again. This time, we were accompanied by Terry, a family friend who was visiting us in Sri Lanka. Dad had the photograph duplicated and we carried with us the freshly framed original to place back on her wall. We stopped at the monastery to check in with the monk. He told me he had sensed that I was an old soul from the moment he saw me.


He said at first he thought I was his reincarnated grandmother and that he was glad I had reconnected with my daughter. Before we took off to see the nun again, he spent some time showing us how ancient Buddhists had written their stories on palm leaves and showed us some very old books they had in their possession. This is when we learned why the Sinhalese script was rounded  – so as not to split the palm leaves along the veins.

palm scroll

Walking back on the path I was nervous that when we arrived we might discover that the old nun had died. Or, that she might not remember our encounter at all and that it would have simply been the delusions of an old woman. But, when we arrived she called to me once again and again she held my hand as I sat by her side. She was sitting up and looked much stronger than when we saw her the first time. The woman in yellow – now in blue – told us that the nun had talked about us many times over the months and seemed to have absorbed vitality from our initial visit.

When Terry talks about his visit with me to that remote village, he seems to understand the connection the old nun and I had. Perhaps he and my father are the only ones who really can understand. There would have really been no way for me to keep in touch with the nun after we left. I wondered how long she lived on that mat on the floor. I sometimes thought about her and the civil war that came to the country only months after that second visit. I hoped that she didn’t have to witness or hear of some of the horrible things that happened. It was 1983 when we last saw her, and the old sister was estimated to be more than 100 then. I am sure she died long ago. I think about her sometimes. I keep the photo she gave us in my room today and I wonder if our reincarnated souls will find each other again someday.

A link my father’s paper about the dassasilmattawa can be found here.

The Bowser man goes on a bender

When you turn on the faucet, you expect water to be there. You expect the faucet will provide for dinner dishes in the sink, for baths after a hot day of gardening, for quenching that late night thirst. But, for so many around the world, consistent running water is not a given. In our hilltop home in Kandy the availability of water ebbed and flowed with the monsoons. Two tanks alongside of our car port collected rain water. They were surrounded by a large stand of bamboo which Wilson constantly hacked back with his machete leaving behind stunted tubes that within days would sprout again and soon demand his attention once more.

The hill country around Kandy has a monsoon season from around May to August. During these months, you cannot escape the pelting rain which explodes from the sky suddenly and violently. Once or twice each day the clouds open abruptly releasing giant drops which scream to the ground. An umbrella helps some, but the rain also jumps off the ground to beat at your legs, and the air is so thick that you are wet no matter what. Often the torrent ceases suddenly as if the valve in the cloud was shut off by an unseen cloud worker above.

December to April is the dry season, and as the name suggests, rain can be elusive for long periods during these months. So, when the clouds did not appear, we had to keep a close eye on our water tanks. When the level dropped too low, we would begin to ration our usage. Showers would get shorter, gardens would go thirsty and laundry would pile up. If the tank got so low that it was in danger of running dry, my parents would call a local company who would deliver a truck load of water for a fee. Of course when our tank was running dry, others who relied on rain water were likely to be in the same predicament. The bowser man became a very popular fellow. It was not unusual for the driver or his friend to travel from house to house and gauge the desperation of the families for water. Your level of interest was judged by the size of the bribe provided to the driver who would then secure your relative position in the queue accordingly. The larger the gift, the more likely you were to hear the familiar sound of the bowser truck straining up the Sri Pushpadana hill.

As a child, I was exempt from the haggling and under the table dealings with the bowser man. I was not however, spared the water rationing. It was April, the tail end of the dry season and the hottest April our neighbors ever remembered. Our water tank was nearly empty and we had been unable to shower for a week – an inconvenience to be sure, but in the hot dry season also a very uncomfortable way of living. Our family had provided the bowser man with the requisite gift equal to our desperation. Apparently, we, and others in our predicament had been a bit too generous. Feeling suddenly flush with cash, the driver had gone on a multi-day bender and in his celebratory state fueled by coconut arrack, he had forgotten to live up to his end of the bargain. This we discovered through the grapevine. While the adults were left to deal with tracking down the hungover bowser man, Karuna invited me to bathe with her at a nearby well.

People washing at wells was something I had seen every day since arriving on the island. Concrete or stone wells were often found within a few feet of the road. I would watch people pull overflowing buckets of water from the middle of the round or square concrete well openings and dump them over their heads. On long trips, I would often play a game of picking somebody in the crowd of bathers that was pulling up their bucket and imagine a race between them and our van. Would they dump the water over their head before our vehicle passed them? Men, usually bare-chested, wrapped their sarongs around their waist or sometimes flipped up the ends so they were wearing what looked like a short skirt. At times they would tuck the excess fabric between their legs so it resembled an oversized diaper. Women wore sarongs like large beach towels wrapped around their chests or sometimes skirts and tops or full saris. Younger children could be seen running naked around the wells, their wet feet slapping on the stone well surround.

Karuna gave me one of her sarongs to borrow. I stepped into the purple and blue striped cloth cylinder and she helped me to secure it under my armpits with a knot at my chest. I slipped on my flip flops and with soap and shampoo in hand, we walked a short distance along Sri Pushpadana before Karuna showed me the entrance to a small path. Although it was the dry season, there was still a lot of vegetation, and if she had not shown me the small slit in the greenery, I doubt I would have ever known it was there. We followed the narrow sloping dirt path down the steep bank away from the road into the shade of large trees. It was almost dark in the thick vegetation and we had to pick our way over roots and rocks. We heard the laughter of children and splashing of water before we found our way to a clearing where a group of women and three kids were bathing and washing clothes. There were instant welcomes from the women who obviously knew Karuna. I followed Karuna’s lead and kicked off my shoes at the end of the concrete area surrounding the well. On the other side a woman whacked soapy shirts against a rock. Her finished laundry was stretched out on the ground and shrubs nearby making a colorful addition to the greenery.

The roadside bathers always pulled and lifted their buckets above them with such apparent ease that I was surprised at how difficult it was to hoist the water from the well.  The rope dug uncomfortably into my hands until Karuna helped me and without hesitation she let loose its contents over my head. The cold was unexpected and the air spontaneously exited my lungs along with an involuntary squeak that was akin to the sound one might imagine if you stepped on a Muppet. Giggles erupted from the children followed closely by the women. “Sitala nae?” (Cold no?) I gasped. Karuna gave me one of her giant smiles. The subsequent buckets were not a shock, making the cold a little less difficult to take. I had not really pondered where the water was coming from, but each dousing also brought with it small rocks and sand. Although the soap and water were getting us clean, we were still left with a slightly gritty feeling. After we washed and chatted with the women we changed into dry sarongs that Karuna had brought and started back up towards home, our still wet feet getting muddy as we walked on the dirt path. By the time we reached home however, our feet had dried in the hot sun and the dirt easily brushed off. The cold though had settled into my bones so that despite the heat of the day, I felt the cool radiating from the inside for quite some time.

The very next day, a dark cloud appeared at about 2pm and we heard the thwack of large rain drops hitting the large banana leaves outside of our living room. Without explanation, my mother darted out of the room and quickly returned with a sarong and soap. She showered with a satisfied smile under the rushing water from the gutters. Just as she squeezed out her dripping sarong, we heard the telltale rumble of the bowser coming up the hill to our house.

The Middle Path


Those first few months in Sri Lanka our family life was inexorably intertwined with the college students. Evening dinner plans with friends would be abandoned if a student called to say they were ill. Disputes between program participants were worked out around our dining table as were cultural misunderstandings. It seemed that the students fell into three general camps.

There was the group that dove into the Sri Lankan lifestyle head first. These adventurous types spent their weekends at Buddhist meditation retreats, wore sarongs and challenged their palettes with exotic dishes. They were fairly self-sufficient and my father just needed to keep an eye on them to make certain they didn’t decide to abandon college and become stilt fishermen. A previous student of my father’s, a son of a prominent Orthodox Jewish family, had taken a semester in India and returned to the United States with an Indian bride. Understandably the couple feared sharing news of their nuptials with his family and had asked my father to mediate the encounter. Not that Dad would stand in the way of true love, and he was thrilled that some students were making the most of their experience, but these risk takers were a constant worry for my parents. I remember one late night listening to unfamiliar sounds in the house. I got out of bed and found my mother downstairs setting up a cot in the office off of the livingroom. My father and Sumanasena had left to collect a student who had been conducting his independent study deep in the jungle and had fallen ill. I helped my mother move the table from the center of the room and brought pillows from the guestroom upstairs before she told me to go back to bed. The next morning the door to the office was closed and for the next week I only caught brief glimpses of blond hair peeking from the top of blankets when my mom would emerge from checking on the patient. I heard whispers of malaria or sleeping sickness, but finally the boy recovered and emerged from the darkened room to resume his studies.

The second camp of students were those who may have over prepared for their tropical adventure. These were the ones who had read all the books about risks like Typhoid, Rabies and Malaria and were concerned that every ache meant they were headed for quarantine. A registered nurse, Mom examined and reassured at least one of these students a week.  One frightened girl came to the house with a bandana wrapped around her face and cried to my mother that she thought she had contracted the plague. It was when she left relieved that I learned that a blackened tongue is a harmless side effect of repeated doses of Pepto Bismol. At times members of this group were summoned to our living room to receive gentle tips about cultural sensitivity. I remember one particularly free-spirited woman who came to the house in a gauzy semi transparent striped jumper which she had purchased at an exclusive shop at the Oberoi hotel in Colombo. “They told me I could wear it anywhere,” she said. My father suggested a sacred shrine was probably not the most respectful location for such attire and commented to us afterwards that she looked like she was wearing a prison jumpsuit.

Like the Buddha, the final group took the middle path. They were not overly cautious, but had reasonable limits on the types of risks they were willing to take. They were the  “go with the flow” gang. These students generally didn’t have special meetings with my parents except for social calls or the occasional medical incident. One day Sumanasena arrived to pick me up from school and said we had to go into town. This was problematic for me because Hillwood girls were not to wear their uniforms outside of school hours, and so we were instructed to always go home and change as soon as school was finished. “We have to go home first,” I complained. “I don’t want to get demerits!” But, Sumanasena explained that a student was very sick and my parents had gone to meet them at the hospital in Kandy. Knowing the student was in the go with the flow category, we knew likely she was not overreacting. When we arrived at the hospital, the doctor was in the hallway of the hospital with my parents. He spoke to my parents in English and explained that the student needed immediate surgery to remove her appendix and that they wanted to take her in right away. My mother was dubious and didn’t feel the symptoms warranted surgery. “I think she may have measles,” Mom said. The doctor indicated that measles, rabies or appendicitis were all possibilities. Mom shook her head and marched down the hall and into the examining room with such confidence that nobody stopped her. Minutes later she emerged with the pale patient. “We are going to another hospital,” she stated. Dad, Sumanasena and I looked at each other, then at the doctor and simply shrugged as Mom walked past us and out the door. We helped the sick student into the van and headed to a small hospital run by the Seventh Day Adventists. The doctors there quickly agreed that measles was the correct diagnosis, and after a few days she was released with her appendix intact. After graduation, this particular student earned her PhD and became a colleague of my father, working in the Biology department of Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Another female student in the easy-going camp was walking around the lake in Kandy one day when a man standing by a tree noticed her and made a bee line to her side. “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” he asked. Women traveling alone anywhere are certainly cautious when approached by men. This particular student was indeed Jewish and thought there might be some danger in answering in the affirmative, but decided she would take a chance. “Actually, I am,” she replied. “Oh that is wonderful!” said the man. “I am hoping you can help me. My mother was Jewish and my father Sinhalese. She died when I was young and I know nothing about how to be a Jew. I have been asking tourists that I see if they could teach me. Can you help me?” Although it seemed a strange request, she felt the man was sincere and met with him several times to discuss Jewish culture and identity with him. They had a make-shift Shabbat with papperdams and curry at a local restaurant and she taught the eager student a few simple prayers. We all wondered how many others he had asked before he happened upon a willing and able helper.

I like to hope I take the middle path when I travel. I read the travel books and have avoided rivers where I know an intimate encounter with a Candiru is, however unlikely, a possibility. (Look it up if you are not familiar with this unique catfish.) But, I also try to experience the culture when I can. I have sampled grasshoppers, snakes and guinea pig. I have slept in a hammock on the beach and taken calligraphy lessons from a monk. As long as they only tell me about the more adventurous aspects after the fact, I hope my children take the middle path when traveling. That they will be cautious, but not afraid when they explore the world.

My new school in Kandy

You may have noticed I’ve been absent for a while. I am going to try to get cracking on getting out blogs more regularly moving forward. I know at least my husband is anxious for me to get to the movie stars! Just to get you back in the loop – My family and I had moved into our rental home in Kandy. I was attending an international school, but had requested that my parents find me a school taught in Sinhala so that I could learn the language. Some of this may sound familiar to those of you who read my post-election post, but I want to give you the full story…

And so, we settled into our home on Sri Pushpadana with our new extended family. And, as promised my parents looked into local schools for me to attend. We toured several options and settled on Hillwood College, a girls school with a principal, Mrs. Perera, who was excited to work with us on developing a plan that would work for me.


Together we all decided that since I was going to be in an environment where the language would be an issue, that they should put me in a situation where the challenge of the work itself would not get in the way. Therefore, although at home I would have been in fifth grade, the plan was for me to begin with the third grade class and eventually work my way up to my contemporaries as my language skills increased. She handed us a list of approved tailors and we went into town to get fitted for my uniform. Almost all school children in Sri Lanka wear uniforms and early morning and early afternoon the streets are filled with large numbers of similarly dressed students heading to class. Most uniforms are white. This is perhaps not the ideal color choice for kids who play hard, but it is the perfect shade for a tropical climate.  Usually boys wear short-sleeved shirts and shorts and girls wear dresses although sometimes skirts are worn as well.


My uniform was a simple short-sleeved white dress with a squared neck. A single pocket was on the left-hand side of the breast and the bottom was pleated. We went to a tailor in downtown Kandy and handed him the list of requirements for the uniform that had been given to us by the principal. It included the precise size of the pocket and the size and angle of its triangular shaped bottom. The list specified the number of pleats and the length of the skirt relative to the knees. The tailor was familiar with the specifications and as he measured me he told us where we could purchase the correct socks, shoes and hair ribbons that were required. We had a list of hair accessories that were acceptable which included black bobby pins, elastics and barrettes and white ribbons (of a very specific width). Because my hair was not black like the other girls in the school, we chose barrettes and elastics that blended with my hair. Several weeks later I was pulled aside after school and told to wear only approved barrette colors. I explained that I assumed the spirit of the regulation was to have the hair ties and barrettes blend invisibly into the hairstyle. The teacher however indicated that the intent was not the point and that everyone regardless of hair or skin color had to follow the same rules.

Three days later my uniforms were ready. I woke early on my first day. The night before I had laid out my dress, two white ribbons, socks and shoes on my desk so that they resembled a deflated school girl. I dressed and came down to breakfast where everybody made quite a fuss. Joseph had packed me a lunch and gave me a hug and my parents continued our first day of school tradition by taking my photograph outside with my books.  “Subha davasak Akka,” said Wilson or have a good day, Akka. Most shopkeepers, waiters and strangers called me Baba which was a term used for little children. But at our house I was the older sister, so Janelle was the Baba. Akka or older sister was my nickname. Some in my family still use it.

Hillwood College Crest

Luckily a girl only two houses down the road also went to Hillwood College and was also in the third grade. Her family I heard were Burghers, a group of Sri Lankans who were descended from Portuguese, British or Dutch colonists. Raquel had wide eyes and cocoa-shaded skin. Her family spoke English at home but they were also fluent in Sinhala. I was lucky to have her as a friend and she promised my parents she would take care of me at school as we got in the van to head to my first day. We arrived at the same time as many other Hillwood students and I joined the long line of girls in white dresses walking down the steps towards my classroom. My classroom stood alone with windows on two sides with a small covered porch on the front. Unlike my elementary school at home, the class opened onto a courtyard. Other classrooms could only be accessed by going outside. Three girls stood on the porch and whispered to each other as I walked up the steps to my class with Raquel. Apparently everyone knew an American girl was joining their ranks. Other students peeked at me through the windows. Raquel showed me to an empty desk and soon the entire class was crowded around me asking me my name, where I was from, how old I was… As a woman in a green and gold sari started up the stairs all the girls quickly took spots behind their desks and folded their hands in front of them. I scrambled to my feet and did the same. “Good Morning Mrs. Dissanayake.” They all chanted in unison and then sat together with me a beat behind them. The teacher stood behind her desk and spoke to the class. There didn’t seem to be any pauses between words – it was all very fast.  I could not understand anything she was saying, but I thought I heard the syllables of my name. I must have been correct as the class chorused, “Welcome Johanna.”

The teacher spoke again and gestured up with her hand and all of the students rose and started for the door. I followed and as soon as we got to the porch two girls had linked arms with me and were leading me down the stairs. They were smiling. As one of them touched my hair they both giggled. Students from other classes were exiting their classrooms and converging on the path. When we got to a fork in the path some were turning right and some left. I went right with my classmates, but Raquel ran up and stopped us. She fired off something to them and the girls responded and began pulling me left once again. “Eyaa Buddhist namae,” Raquel said as she took my hand “Eyaa Christian. We go this way.” I wasn’t certain what was going on, but it turned out that Hillwood began each day with short religious services. Although the school for girls was founded by two Church of England missionaries, it was a very inclusive community and there were services for a number of religions. I’m fuzzy on the exact number that were in my class but my guess would be about 15-18. Two of the students were Muslims and the rest were split about evenly between Buddhists and Christians. Raquel and I joined a line of other students in white dresses and entered the chapel, a lovely building with arched windows that reminded me of the chapel turned library at the college where my father taught in Geneva.


The girls arrange themselves in rows by class with youngest students in the front and oldest girls in the back. Raquel handed me a prayer book which was in English and Sinhala. Services were conducted in English every day except for Friday when they were in Sinhalese. The service was not long, and consisted of a song or two and the Lord’s prayer. The hymn that first day was Morning has Broken. I had always liked the song, but wondered why they were singing songs from the radio in church. I liked Cat Stevens and as I joined in the chorus I thought to myself I had picked a very hip school. Only much later did I discover that the song was first a hymn and later a billboard hit. Looking back at my report card it is no wonder I received a 40 as my first term grade in Christianity.

School made me exhausted for the first few weeks as concentrating in another language is taxing. But, my classmates and teachers were wonderful and soon I felt very comfortable there. The culture in school was much more regimented and formal than at home. We always stood when our teacher entered and there our work was expected to be neat and organized. I would often copy over my Sinhala lessons when I got home to make sure that my letters were perfectly rounded and symmetrical. Mrs. Dissanayake taught all subjects except for English. For that subject a short, round-faced grey-haired teacher was our instructor. After several weeks we had our first exam including a written and oral evaluation. One at a time we were called to the porch to read from an English children’s book. To my surprise I did not receive a perfect score. I was faulted for the way I pronounced certain words. Hillwood used the British system of instruction and we were expected to pronounce words as the British would. From then on I spoke in English class with a Sinhalese accent to ensure that I was consistent with the teacher. I also learned that day that when “the” precedes a word beginning with a vowel that it is pronounced with a hard “e” as in tree.

Our lessons covered a broad range of subjects. We learned the history of the school and our role as students in the community.


We spent a lot of time learning about Sri Lanka and its history. History included everything from the evolution of sanitation and communication to the various invasions from foreign powers to the introduction of terracing of rice paddies.

We focused much effort on the four main religions in Sri Lanka including the varied customs, dress and places of worship associated with Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism.

Sadly, although I can still read my notes, I no longer understand what the words I am reading mean. But, my notebooks are filled with many hand-drawn pictures, and coupled with my memory I know that we spent a lot more time at Hillwood learning about culture and customs than we ever did in my school in the United States. In science we studied the monsoons and the water cycles and how they influenced farming and the life cycles of plants and animals.

Although lessons were more regimented, free time was less structured than at home. At lunch time we were left alone. We could decide to eat inside or out, and were free during recess to visit and play with children of any age. Joseph packed my lunch each day which began as sandwiches of various types. But, the rice and curry that most girls brought filled the room with such amazing aromas, I soon asked for him to pack me a more typical Sri Lankan meal. As the months went on he challenged me with spicier and spicier offerings. After lunch, we had recess on the dirt courtyard right in front of my classroom. The older girls often played a version of hide and seek. Like in the version I was familiar with, one person counted while the others hid. There was a home base and people needed to sneak back to that home base without being seen rather than tagged. The goal was to shout the person’s name and say “I see you” before the individual reached home base. I found the game so difficult. Others would see a hem of a dress and yell the name of their friend. But, everybody had the same outfit with the same hair-styles. It was difficult to quickly conjure up the names of people I hardly knew from the older classes. After a month, Principal Perera gave me the opportunity to get to know the older girls better.

reportcardOne of the upper class girls brought a note to Mrs. Dissanayake who excused me from class. I was escorted to the principal’s office where we chatted about how things were going. She complimented me on the improvement in my language skills and said my teacher had said I was ready to join my contemporaries in fifth grade. I would be sad to leave the friends I had made in third grade I explained, and wondered if I could remain where I was. She did not object and for that reason I stayed in third grade. When I returned to the U.S. I entered sixth grade and so I skipped fifth grade all together. In addition to the traditional subjects, we also studied Kandyan dance at Hillwood. We learned some of the traditional moves as well as their symbolic meanings. Unfortunately, the core subjects always took precedence over dance, and it was often cancelled for tests and extended lessons.

While I was learning Sinhalese Janelle was learning too. In mid-October, she pointed to a page in her favorite book, Barnyard Friends and said her first word, duck. Her second word was bala, the Sinhalese word for dog. Luckily she was also learning to walk.  Floors in the country seemed to come in three colors; black, red or brown. Each floor was covered with the associated colored wax polish. Janelle was therefore constantly covered in either black, red or brown. Her knees and hands were always dyed to match the house we were visiting, and the color often made its way to her face as well. My mother was relieved when only the bottoms of her feet rather than her entire body were stained. And, Janelle’s feet were always dirty. She really never wore shoes as she had very few occasions when bare feet were not appropriate. When our time in Sri Lanka came to an end, my parents thought it was time for then two year old Janelle to get used to wearing something on her feet. Being barefoot in snowy central New York was not an option. When they finally wrangled her enough to put on the shoes, she toddled around like she was just learning to walk all over again.