Indiana Jones – Real life Hero

For Jessica and I going to the set in the morning, staying through lunch and then spending the afternoon sightseeing or playing at the hotel or my house became fairly routine. But one day our routine was disrupted as they were going to shoot at night. It was exciting to go to the set at night. We felt grown up heading out to “work” when normally we would have been settling in for the evening. When we climbed the dirt paths from to the location there were all of the now familiar crew members with their smoke machines and cameras, cables and clipboards, but the atmosphere seemed much more laid back than during the day. Maybe people were less punchy with the relief from heat that the evening brought. Jessica and I watched as they filmed a slim boy stagger over the rock into Indy’s arms several times before they broke for dinner. The meal was set up in a building close to where we were shooting. Tables lined the center of the cramped room. Lights dangled from cables strewn across beams in the ceiling casting shadows of the peopling queuing for food on the uneven walls making it appear like there was a second more ominous group waiting to dine after us. The smells of friend chicken, baked beans and corn bread made my mouth water as we waited in line. I had a lot of great food on that set, but this was my favorite meal! With plates piled high we exited the building and ate near the iconic stone in the center of the village. Just as we were finishing we heard a rumble of thunder in the distance. Suddenly massive clouds rolled in. I had heard that expression used to describe an upcoming storm, but this is the first time I had really witnessed it. Giant foggy masses visible despite the dark sky slid over the hills beyond the set and tumbled towards us. Suddenly papers and loose objects around the set began to move and make noise in the increasing wind. Almost simultaneously all evidence of twinkling stars disappeared and giant drops began screaming down from the darkened sky. While some raced to cover cameras and equipment, others ran back towards the dining area and huddled in the crowded building to wait out the storm. The pounding rain outside made it necessary to shout for conversations to happen. Although it was cramped and hot, people were laughing and picking at the remnants of dinner. Then, suddenly there was a startling flash and a deafening crack that shook the ground as lighting seemed to strike the hills just beyond us. The lighting silenced everyone for a moment but people quickly began to resume chatting. However, they were quickly silenced again when someone in charge of that kind of thing came in and adamantly told the group that our location was not safe and we all needed to clear the set immediately.

The room rapidly emptied as people scrambled to take care of things they were in charge of. Cables were being wrapped and road cases were being packed and snapped shut. Kate, Jessie and I were not in charge of anything so we started out the door and headed towards the vans. Outside the rain had already soaked the ground and there were standing puddles everywhere. As we started down the hill the muddy paths had become tiny rushing rivers. Kate and Jessica were ahead of me but there were multiple paths down the hill and I knew the way. As I came around a bend the narrow footpath went in between two large boulders. Two cables met at a junction directly between the rocks and water was rushing over the intersection of the two thick cords. I heard a popping and humming noise and realized the water could be electrified and might not be safe to traverse especially in my leather flip flops. I tried to go around the rock to the right, but beyond the boulder was thick brush. Same thing on the other side. I looked at the rocks and weighed my options. Should I risk a nasty shock or try to climb the boulder that was taller than I? Just then I heard the theme music to Indiana Jones – Just kidding, that is what I hear when I remember the story. But, in reality all I heard was someone coming up behind me. I turned. It was Harrison Ford dressed in his full Indiana Jones attire, whip and all. He quickly assessed the situation and came to the same conclusion that I had. “Climb on.” he commanded and hoisted me onto his back. He clambered over the boulder on the left and we rejoined the path on the other side. “Thanks!” I said. I know that twice during the making of the movie Ford complained about an injured back. I hope I was not the cause. He put me down near the vans where a soaked Kate and Jessica were just climbing in. We all bounced down the muddy road and as we headed towards Kandy, Kate pointed out that Harrison Ford, movie action star had been a real life hero.

newspaper article


A Pinch Too Much Enthusiasm

Although Jessica and I spent a lot of time entertaining ourselves on the village set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, not every day was spent on this repurposed tea plantation.  There were days when filming moved to areas along the Mahaweli Ganga (river). This longest of Sri Lanka’s rivers flows through Kandy and in places has cut a deep and impressive gorge creating beautiful vistas from the hills surrounding the water. It was across this river that the iconic Temple of Doom rope bridge was constructed.

rope bridge

Luckily for the crew, a massive project to dam the river to harness power and provide dry season irrigation was underway in the vicinity. This meant that there was a great supply of engineers on hand to assist with the design and construction of the bridge. My family was allowed to see the bridge suspended 200 feet above the river, but understandably we were not allowed to walk across it. I was not there the morning they rigged the bridge with wire cutters and explosives and had one take to get the climactic scene in which the bridge falls.  As I recall Jessica and I decided it was too early to get up. But, we did hear a lot of happy people celebrating that night at the hotel that their one-take had been successful.

Also along the river was to be the scene where Kate was going to tangle with a giant snake. You may recall the room rented at the Hotel Suisse under the name of Mr. and Mrs. Longfellow which housed two giant pythons. Kate mentioned again and again the scene in which she was going to have one of the snakes as a scene partner. She told us the gist was that the snake was going to wrap around her and begin to squeeze. Indy was going to try unsuccessfully all of his manly adventurous tricks to get the snake to let go and finally only succeed by singing it a song. However, when faced with the snake Kate told us she had a massive panic attack and told them she simply couldn’t do it. She said later in the script she had to deal with bugs, but that those would be simple because bugs you can just throw on a person. It turns out when it came to it hundreds of creepy crawly creatures were scarier than she anticipated as well. I don’t know anything about the negotiations that took place regarding the Longfellow’s appearance, but I do know that scene Kate described was never in the movie. She did however deal with one of the pythons that she mistakes for a pesky elephant’s trunk.

Jessica C

When not on set, Jessica and I spent many happy afternoons swimming and touring around Kandy. Her friend Jamie was adventurous and game for anything I suggested. I took them for a walk in Udawatta Kale, a lush forest reserve in the hills above Kandy where we saw several poisonous snakes who did not have their own hotel rooms. On our way to the nature preserve we passed a movie theatre with a sign welcoming the Western movie guests with special showings during the week of Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.  We went to the theatre and saw Star Wars and the next day on the set I told Lucas we had seen it. “You noticed my name is the first thing you see in that movie?” he inquired. Honestly, I had not noticed, so I just smiled and nodded.


Jamie dove into every experience. At the market she bargained at stalls for batiks and trinkets and commissioned some outfits from our local tailor. She also worked with a jeweler friend of ours to design a combination ring and bracelet which they created and delivered to her before the film crew left the country. Sri Lanka is known for its gems and my mother had been slowly purchasing stones during our months on the island. Some she was buying for specific friends back home who had sent her requests. Others she was acquiring in the hopes of selling them for a profit back home with the help of her father who worked in a jewelry store at the time. When our new movie friends made it known that they were interested in looking into gems as well, Mom had her preferred salesman from her favorite store bring a selection of offerings to our home to show. She had a dinner party and Harrison Ford and his then wife Melissa Mathison came to look along with Steven Speilberg and Kate Capshaw. We had several fun dinner parties at our home with this group.

One especially hectic day on the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came when the crew filmed all of the children rushing back into the village and being reunited with their families. There were a lot of people around that day and all of the kids were very excited. In what was the final scene of the movie which leads directly to the credits, Willie Scott informs Indy she is headed back to Missouri “Where they never feed you snakes before ripping your heart out, luring you into hot pits…”  She storms off to ask for directions when he lassos her with his whip and pulls her in for a kiss. My guess is being ensnared by a whip could be quite a painful process but it was accomplished by a clever camera cut and simply tying the whip around her waist. As he pulls her in, the kiss is initially thwarted by a generous dousing of water from an elephant’s trunk, but of course Indy always gets the girl, elephant nose water be damned.

As they finally embrace, all of the children the couple rescued from the mines happily surround them. Well, technically they were not the same children rescued from the mines as all of those scenes were filmed on a sound stage in England with different extras, but for the purposes of the movie plot of course they are the same. Jessica and I were able to watch all of the filming from within a hut that had been constructed as part of the village. Although the structure was clearly visible in the shots, we were told we could stay in the building if we were not seen so we watched through cracks and holes in the walls just feet away from the action. I guess our peeking eyeballs are therefore in the movie, but hard as I have tried I see not even a shadow to indicate where we were. With the help of interpreters Spielberg whipped the children into an excited frenzy and told them to encircle Ford and Capshaw as they kissed and show their appreciation to the couple. His direction may have been a bit too inspiring. After several takes Kate asked to speak to Spielberg. After conversing with Kate in hushed tones he looked around and called out for me. Since Jessica and I had been given strict instructions to stay hidden I timidly peered out from the door of the hut worried that we had done something wrong. Spielberg caught my eye and hurriedly gestured for me to come over. I glanced questioningly at Jessica who shrugged before I stepped out of the hut and jogged over to him. It seemed like everyone was looking in my direction. He put his arm around me and told me he needed to say something to the kids that might be better coming from another kid. Apparently in their enthusiasm the extras were showing a bit too much affection towards the leading lady in the buttocks region. As he explained I gave a surprised look to Kate. “A lot of pinching going on,” she said nodding.

Spielberg motioned for the group of kids to gather around and I explained in Sinhala to be gentle with “the madam.” I told them that she had a lot more movie to make and that it would be better if she was not sore. Some of the kids sniggered, and they got back into place for another take. She told me it was better after that, but if you watch her reaction in the footage they used in the movie I wonder if they used one of the earlier versions. She seems a bit shocked at how enthusiastically they greet her!

See the clip here.


Have you ever wondered how many gallons the bladder of an adult elephant can hold? No? Neither had I until witnessing the release of the bladder contents of a passing pachyderm almost caused me major bodily injury.

The cause for this curious situation was a combination of politics and culture. Kandy is known for a great yearly festival when dancers, drummers and finely decorated elephants parade through the streets.


The Perahera occurs in July or August and is called the Esala Perahera. Like many centuries old traditions, the significance of the celebration has evolved and absorbed numerous meanings over the years, but the main focus is to celebrate both the coming of the raining season and the sacred relic of Buddha’s tooth that is housed in Kandy.

perahera elephant
When Kandy was ruled by a King, only the royalty had access to view the sacred relic, so once a year, the tooth would be paraded through the streets for all the people to revere. There are numerous youtube videos of the amazing processionals. I encourage you to take a look.

A very brief history – Kandy king

In 1815, over 2,300 years of Sri Lankan monarchy ended when the British gained control of the island which they maintained until the island nation gained independence in 1948. The country was ruled by a parliamentary system. In 1977, the United National Party won a supermajority in parliament and amended the constitution to make the president an executive position, and the existing prime mister, J. R. Jayewardene became the country’s first president. While we were there in October of 1982, the president was elected to a second term. Then, in December of that same year, the ruling party had a special referendum to forego parliamentary elections scheduled in 1983 and instead extend the parliament elected in 1977 until 1989. The referendum passed with 54% approval. Jayewardene

Some saw Jayewardene’s move as a power grab while others saw it as necessary for the policies he was promoting to have time to be put into effect. There had been a small amount of rioting and striking in universities after the October election, but by the new year, things seemed to have calmed. As a ten-year old I did not understand political intricacies (nor do I now for that matter), but I did understand that a special perahara had been organized to honor that Jayewardene was coming to Kandy to celebrate his new inauguration as well as Independence Day on Feb 4th.

The main parade was to take place fairly late at night, so a special smaller procession was organized for younger viewers. My nanny, Karuna and I walked into town to see the festivities.   karuna and jo

It was an especially hot day and the back of my dress was moist with sweat by the time we reached the parade route. There was quite a crowd lining the street on both sides behind the metal barriers that separated traffic from the sidewalk, but we found a spot where the people were only 3-4 deep and we thought we could see the coming parade. More and more people arrived and filled in behind us and we found ourselves unexpectedly jostled to the front.

The whip crackers came first and their long, thick colorful whips swirled overhead before smashing down on the pavement with a tremendous pop. They are said to signify thunder and lightning.  They were followed by throngs of flag bearers with colorful banners. Next were dancers with jingling bells that sang out each time they took a step. We could feel the vibrations in our chests of the beat as the drummers passed. Next, people carryings swords marched silently and precisely. There were more dancers, men in ancient royal garb and hordes of children dressed in white. Finally came what I was most excited about – ornately adorned elephants. At the evening parade, there would be 53 elephants walking three abreast, but there were fewer and smaller elephants in the youth parade.

Although it was daylight they were accompanied by torch bearers who carried metal baskets on tall poles filled with coconut husks doused in oil which burned so hot that we could feel the heat from our curbside vantage point. Just as a pair of torches passed us, the man on our side lay his basket on the ground and tapped it to knock out the layer of ashes that were forming at the bottom. I could smell the coconut oil. A small, smoldering pile was left behind and I remembered my father telling me about an incident in which an elephant had stepped on one of the piles and run into the crowd trampling several people. But the next elephant in the procession was in the middle of the street and I mentally drew a line and saw that the creature would pass nowhere near the ashes.

The procession and the elephant stopped almost directly in front of us, and I could see the intricate embroidered designs on its costume. White, yellow and pink patterns stood out against the red fabric. At the evening parade the elephants would also be adorned with hundreds of lights. The creature shifted its weight from side to side as it waited for the parade to begin again. Then suddenly the elephant started to urinate. A collective chuckle arose from the surrounding crowd and Karuna looked at me and snickered, covering her mouth. It was as if a fire hydrant had been turned on and soon a river of urine was snaking behind the elephant from the middle of the street toward the spectators slightly to our right. As we watched the elephant it seemed impossible that there could be more to come out, but the torrent kept coming and the river kept getting closer and closer to the side of the road. People shuffled backwards and tried to make space for the group in front of them to get out of the way. Then, there was a sudden shift in mood from the crowd and people were no longer being polite. We heard some cries to our right which rippled back towards us. Suddenly Karuna and I were being pushed forcibly by the crowd. She tried to take my hand, but the force of the people pushing against us wouldn’t let her raise her hand and before we knew it we were pressed up against the metal barriers. The lowest one hit around my waist and an upper bar at just about my shoulders. Swiftly it became hard to breath as the throng pushed me against the metal. I briefly fell to my knees and then scrambled back up. I managed to get my torso between the two bars. My head was then sticking out into the parade route and I was folded in half and being pushed over the lower bar. The pressure on my stomach was painful and I looked around for Karuna. I could see her on the ground to my left her face pushed up against the same bar as I was. She was grabbing it and attempting to stand, but she fell to the ground and I could see people stepping on her hands.  She was crying, and I was starting to panic. There was a general murmur punctuated by occasional shouts and cries behind us as people continued to push against us. Several police rushed towards the area from the street side and barked at the crowd to back up. A slender young officer in a brown uniform grabbed me around the waist and pulled me through the bars leaving one of my shoes behind. He then helped Karuna and several others near the front stand and crawl through the bars. From our new streetside vantage point we could see the throngs of people pushing together and then spreading apart behind the barriers. It was like a wave at a baseball game or the way a slinky behaves when you send a pulse along it. Then, like a traffic jam that suddenly opens up the pushing stopped.

I retrieved my shoe and the police escorted us to the end of the block where there was a break in the barrier. With shaky legs we made our way to the back of the crowd. My knees were pock marked with tiny pebbles from the road embedded in them and the bottom of my dress was filthy and slightly torn. Karuna’s pale pink dress was blackened all the way down the front. She had a scratch across her left cheek, her elbow was dripping blood and her slip shown through a rip in the side. A spectator handed Karuna a handkerchief and she wiped her face before holding it to her elbow.

Karuna was visibly shaken as we made our way back up the hill towards our home. I made a joke about the river of pee and we both remarked at how we couldn’t believe how much water the elephant must have consumed, and that they would have to build a bridge in that section of the road. By the time we got home we were fine, but there was a new wave of excitement as we showed up disheveled and were surrounded by the concerned household.

My grandfather was visiting at the time and seemed the most concerned as he spun me around to look for any hidden injuries. Karuna had no interest in heading back into town, but I still wanted to see the grand parahera that was to take place at nine that night. Luckily, for that one, a friend had invited us to view the parade from the second floor of the Bank of Ceylon building. From there we were able to see everything including the dancers, fire twirlers, elephants and massive crowds below in comfort.

By the way, an adult elephant bladder can hold about 42 gallons of urine.

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.

Little Orphan Aliya

One weekend, my parents told me that we were going on an adventure. They would not tell me where we would be heading, but it would be a day trip from Kandy and our driver, Sumanasena, and his family would be joining us. Although we left early in the morning, the sun was already making it very clear that the day would be a scorcher. The air was distorted from heat rising from the dusty roads leading to our destination. If recreating the scene in a movie there would surely be screech of a single hawk overhead. It was that kind of oppressively hot day. Indicating we had arrived, Sumanasena pulled our van up to a clearing under a tree and the two families groggily exited. The ride had been long, and we stretched our limbs. Janelle, asleep on Mom’s shoulder, had damp hair that was plastered to the side of her face where she was sweating against Mom in the heat.  Probably 50 feet away a group of men crouched in the shade of a tree. The workers were moving as slowly as we were. As was often the case, I was feeling a bit car sick. The warmth was not helping and I was not sure I wanted to be wherever we were. One of Sumanasena’s sons was albino and we had to be especially careful to keep him out of the sun. He stood near the van under an umbrella while we got the attention of the workers who were slowly rising from their crouched positions.


Although moving at a snail’s pace, the worker who approached us was animated and friendly. He welcomed us and gave us some history about where we were and I quickly forgot that I was feeling queasy. We were at an elephant orphanage!

The elephant orphanage was founded in 1975 by the Sri Lankan Wildlife department to care for the numerous unweaned solitary calves that were being discovered in the jungles. Elephants can stand shortly after birth but rely on their mothers and the herd for some time. After pregnancy, which lasts for 22 months, the female gives birth to a single calf and very rarely twins. The calf can be 160-250 pounds, but despite their size they are vulnerable. The calves do not wean until 18 months to three years later, so they will rely on their mothers for that time. There are other females in the herd, usually juveniles without calves of their own, who are attracted to the youngsters and help look after the calf. The Wildlife department was encountering an increasing number of orphaned elephants who were dying after their mothers were killed sometimes by farmers protecting their rice paddies or villages from damage or from falling into deep pits. The goal of the orphanage was to foster these orphaned juveniles until they could survive on their own.

We followed the guide who took us around to the front of the building where we had been standing and there they were – young elephants of many sizes. The youngest stood shorter than I and was possibly the cutest creature I had ever seen.


After explaining the life cycle of the herd, the guide asked if we wanted to feed the baby. All orphaned elephants were bottle fed. I was handed a glass bottled as thick as my arm which the infant clearly recognized as her lunch. Lifting her trunk and searching for the bottle, she pulled my arm towards her open mouth. I was struck and a bit intimidated by the strength of the appendage but she guided the nipple into her mouth and quickly finished the bottle. I fed her a second bottle and patted her head which was covered with what looked like soft fuzz, but was actually more like the bristles of a broom.  She seemed to enjoy the contact and rubbed her head against my body almost knocking me over in the process. Janelle, now awake and full of smiles patted her as well. After her lunch, it was time for all of the elephants to bathe.


I am told that the elephant orphanage has become a popular tourist attraction, but on this sweltering day in 1982, there was no one but our group to view the bathing ritual. Twice a day the elephants are lead to the river to enjoy bathing and cooling off in the water. We followed them, rather they eagerly lead, us to the shore. Two elephant handlers known as mahouts were already in the water with two juveniles. Our small friend paced at the edge of the water seemingly afraid to enter. As the rest of the elephants entered and began rolling and splashing in the flowing river, our guide led us slightly upstream from the rest of the group. With less action, the little one entered the water following its handler. I was asked if I wanted to join. A dip in the river sounded delightful and I folded and rolled up my pant legs and waded in.  I wish I could remember the name of my large yet tiny friend. In my mind I refer to her as Aliya, the Sinhalese word for elephant. After wading into the river she quickly rolled on her side. The mahout gave me some coconut husks and told me to use them to scrub her back.  The coarse hairy husk resembled Aliya’s bristled top, and I gently massaged in the indentation where her head met her back. The mahout laughed and indicated that the elephant was tougher than I was treating her and showed me how to really scrub. Together we pushed and pulled the coconut across her skin like we were scrubbing the floor. Her ears flopped back and forth and we moved our focus to behind her ears.  Like a dog who collapses when being scratched in the right place, Aliya contentedly rolled back and forth in the water flapping her ears and trunk.  The larger downstream elephants were a bit more measured, but also seemed to be having a good time. Sucking water in with their trunks and splashing it over their backs. When Aliya joined in there was no longer a chance of staying at all dry. I gave into the fact that I’d be wet from head to toe, so I put my arms around her in the water. Feeding and swimming with Aliya was one of the most amazing animal encounters I’ve ever had.  I am not sure why I was afforded this unique opportunity. From videos and pictures I see posted today, it appears visitors to the elephant orphanage witness the twice daily trips to the river from a safe distance, while my interaction was very hands on. In 1982, the same year as our visit, the organization began a breeding program. Perhaps the increase in population and popularity of the refuge is the reason why my experience is no longer the norm or perhaps we were just there at the right moment, but I will never forget that playful exchange with a baby elephant. It is possible that little Aliya is still bathing in Sri Lankan rivers today. She would be in her mid thirties. We went back to the elephant orphanage several times with students and visitors who joined us in Sri Lanka, sometimes riding the elephants and sometimes feeding them but never swimming with them again.

When we travel in 2017, we will be visiting an elephant refuge although not the same one as the one we visited with Sumanasena and his familiy. We will be traveling to The Millennium Elephant Foundation. We have adopted the elephants for the year leading up to our visit and are learning about their lives. We are all looking forward to meeting them.

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.


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!