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.


Too much lunch.

April 19th, 1983

“Johanna still has three weeks of vacation. She is hobnobbing with the U.S. film director Steven Spielberg (he did Star Wars, E. T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Harrison Ford who starred in these films. We met a little girl at the Suisse Hotel pool who it turns out is the leading lady’s (Kate Capshaw’s) daughter. She’s six – Jessica. Anyway, Johanna is doubling as friend and guide/interpreter for the group. She leaves the house about nine, goes off to spend the morning watching the shoot on location, has lunch and spends the afternoon swimming or shopping with them, and we see her sometime after dinner. I can’t understand why he hasn’t asked her to sign on yet. Anyway, she’s keeping busy.”

-Judy Bloss

This is how my mother described my April school vacation,1983 in a letter home to my Grandfather. I had just turned 11 and found myself hanging out on the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Most of the filming was taking place just above the Hantana Tea plantation located across the valley on a hill opposite my house in Kandy. Each day, a van would pick me up and make the drive of about 30 minutes to the film location. My travel companions depended on the shooting schedule for the day. Most of the time Jamie (Kate Capshaw’s friend) would bring Jessica to meet her mother on location and they would pick me up on the way. But, sometimes Kate could arrive later on set and she would make the trip with us. Occasionally we would be joined by Ke Huy-Quan (Now Jonathan Ke Quan) who played Short Round in the movie. He was never without his mother. She did not speak much English and so I think he was looking after her as much as she was looking after him. It is reported that they privately referred to Spielberg and Lucas as Bearded Man 1 and Bearded Man 2. I wouldn’t be surprised, although his English was still a little rough, he was quick at making jokes and frequently made us laugh.

We would travel down the winding road from my house through the heart of Kandy before climbing the hills on the other side. I had grown accustomed to the driving in Sri Lanka. Close calls with bicycles and overcrowded buses no longer registered. But the wide eyes of my fellow passengers were a clue that driving in California was more, shall we say, regulated.  When the driver would make especially adventurous forays, the van inhabitants would take a synchronized breath in as if they could somehow suck in the sides of the van as they sucked in their guts. The closer we got to the film locations, the bumpier the ride became and we bounced off each other like pinballs. Kate Capshaw would cross her arms and hold her chest, “Gotta hold on to the puppies,” she’d say. I didn’t even have kittens at the time, so I could not relate.

Some of the jungle brush surrounding the area had been freshly cut back to allow a primitive road to be built specifically for the film crew. Larger vehicles couldn’t pass beyond a certain point and we would walk up a steep series of dirt paths behind grips, best boys and gaffers carrying equipment that weighed more than we did. Yeah – I just threw those terms in there to make it sound like a film set. I really didn’t know what most of the workers scurrying around me were up to and I certainly didn’t know their titles. It all seemed very complicated. There were camera tracks on the ground, cables everywhere and men walking around with smoke machines. Yet, with all of these unusual things and all of the famous actors, directors, designers and producers, I was the one who seemed to be the curiosity.

At every break in shooting, and there seemed to be a lot of breaks, somebody would sit next to me and ask about my unique situation in Sri Lanka. After inevitably commenting on how hot it was, they would ask about food, culture and customs of the country. Many of the same crew had worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark and so I guess I was somebody new to talk to.

During one such break Jessica and I found a rock on which to eat lunch. Well, Jessica was eating; I was relishing. I had grown accustomed to and quite fond of Sri Lankan cuisine, but I hadn’t had good American fare in quite some time and the food on the set was – ridiculous. Hamburgers, potato salad, corn on the cob, BROWNIES… I climbed up the rock careful not to lose a precious french fry or deviled egg. For fans of the movie, our lunchtime rock can be seen when the boy who escapes the mine comes staggering back to his village and collapses in Indiana’s arms.


It was a warm day, but a portion of the rock was in the shade and as we ate and relished our meals respectively, Jessica and I chatted. We were soon joined by Mr. Spielberg who asked if he could share our shady spot. “Another hot one,” he said.  I moved over to make room, almost losing my ear of corn in the process. After some deft maneuvering, it settled back into the middle of my plate.

“Where did you find corn like this?” I asked. “I haven’t seen any since I got here.”

Spielberg explained that none of the food they were serving was from Sri Lanka. They were worried about the health of the cast and crew, and so everything was being flown in from West Germany. I quickly saw a way that the film could save a lot of money and provide the local cooks with work and explained that the food in Sri Lanka was delicious and safe. Surprisingly the assurances of an eleven-year old did not convince him to alter the catering practices of his 28 million dollar enterprise.

“What about the water?” he asked. “You don’t drink the water do you?”

I explained that at home we boiled the water that we drank and that I’d never been sick.

“What about the showers?”

This question confused me. “We just use regular water in the showers,” I said.

“Do you keep your eyes closed?”

Again, a confusing question “I – um – only when I wash out the shampoo.”

“I keep my eyes shut when I shower here. I heard that water that gets in your eyes can find a path to your throat and if you swallow it you can get sick.”

I tried to imagine the internal connection between the eyes and the throat and made a mental note to ask my Mom about what joined the two. He was definitely concerned with cleanliness, especially of the water. Kate later told me that when they had to film the scene in which she falls into a puddle of water that they damned up a small area and filled it with bottled water.

I was about to admit that I brushed my teeth with tap water when an assistant arrived with a wax-paper wrapped sandwich for Spielberg. With all the options flown in from Europe, he had opted for a classic PB&J. The conversation turned then from water purity to crunchy versus creamy. FYI I really like them both – depends on my mood.

Filming was interesting but could be tedious. On this day, they were filming the scene when Indy, Willie and Short Round arrive in the village. (The clip can be seen here) The villagers offer them some food. Mr. Ford had asked me how to say thank you in Sinhala the day before. When we arrived on set he asked me to remind him again, and after going over the schedule for the day with the director, it had slipped his mind again.  “Stuthi,” I said slowly. “Stoooooti.” As we practiced he was constantly being interrupted so finally I wrote it down on a scrap of paper and he kept it in his pocket. I helped him with a few other lines he said in Sinhalese. The speech by the village elder explaining the magic of the stones which Indy translates is all in Sinhalese. When the movie came out I read though every tiny name in the credits searching for mine. I thought, maybe I would be under special thanks. Much to my disappointment, I was not listed. But, I guess they didn’t forget me. When we were planning our wedding, my then fiancé sent letters to Ford and Spielberg who both sent back replies including this personalized best wishes from Ford on our wedding day.

Wedding Wishes

The hut where they were filming the scene was cramped. I first watched the scene from behind the camera where they were shooting. Short Round spontaneously copied one of the gestures that Indy used when describing his plane crash and Spielberg liked that and asked him to mimic him some more. We watched them film the scene multiple times. By then Ford had his Sinhalese line down. I wasn’t completely satisfied with the pronunciation, but it was hot, and for some reason despite all the discussions they were having about angles and light they were not asking the the kid in the the back for her opinion on dialect.  I gave Ford a thumbs up and Jessica and I went to sit outside. There were several director’s chairs just outside of the filming area and we hopped up into two empty ones next to George Lucas. I had often seen him standing with arms folded. To me, he appeared very quiet and serious and even intimidated me a bit. I tried hard not to stare at the white patch in his otherwise very dark beard. For some reason I wondered if it was real. “Action!” was heard once again from within the hut and we could catch the same dialogue we now had memorized. “I can’t eat this….That’s more food than these people eat in a week…I’m not hungry…” Just then Lucas shifted and crossed his legs and the chair he was sitting in made a terrible creaking noise. He cringed and a dozen heads snapped around to find the source of the disturbance, annoyed that the noise might have ruined the take. Lucas pointed toward me and then quickly put his finger to his lips as if to shush me. My eyes widened and my cheeks flushed. He was blaming me. But quickly he laughed – “No, my fault,” he said quietly to the crew as he patted his stomach. “Too much lunch.” Jessica and I giggled about it later. “He pretended he farted!” she laughed. I guess he wasn’t so serious after all.

Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory…and egg salad.

One of the most important things we gain as we grow older is a sense of perspective. I lived in Sri Lanka with my family and did not really appreciate at the time how unique my reality was. I witnessed dozens of women shaving their heads as they were initiated as Buddhist nuns. I watched an artist pour molten brass into intricate molds at his home. I saw wild elephants playing near the sea and giant fruit bats flying at dusk. I enjoyed all of these experiences, but it was not until I looked back at them as an adult that I appreciated how lucky I was to have so many unique natural and cultural adventures. All of the things that transpire in your childhood help shape you and your worldview as an adult, but one of my experiences in Sri Lanka helped me convince my future husband that I was someone he should get to know.

My school was on Spring recess and I had a month of free time. With two energetic kids at home, I am sure Mom was eager to plan some activities that would help us expend energy, and so she got us a pool membership at a local hotel. The Hotel Suisse is one of those old colonial structures that makes one think that at any moment a British solider with a pith helmet is going to walk through the door to join his wife for high tea in the garden.  Built in the early 1800s, over the years the building has been used as a private residence, government building and hotel. But our family was not interested in any of the 90 well-appointed rooms, we just wanted to cool off in the hotel pool.

swiss hotel 2

When we arrived it was late morning, but it was already hot and I jumped right into the water while mom sat poolside with my sister. There were not that many people in the pool, but the deck was hopping with activity; Many of the people looked somehow out of place. Rather than relaxed vacationers, they all scurried by the water’s edge to a small garden area in the corner. I wondered if the folks building the dam were having a conference because these people simply looked busy in what was usually a very laid back resort. One of them carried several folding chairs and set them up in the corner near the lair of the resident peacock who seemed annoyed by the intrusion and haughtily made his way to the other side of the garden. Then, a slender bearded man exited the hotel and looked around. The people with the chairs motioned him over. As he passed by I noticed his baseball cap read E.T. I had seen E.T. in the movie theatre just before we had left to come to Sri Lanka. Then, I had watched it at the home of one of my neighbors in Kandy. This neighbor’s family was from Japan. They had all of the latest electronic gadgets including a LaserDisc player and somehow a copy of the recently released movie. I went back to playing in the pool and met a young blond girl several years younger than I named Jessica. We chatted and raced back and forth showing off some of our pool skills – somersaults, handstands, underwater swimming, and we counted as the other held their breath to see how long we could stay under. When I came up from what I hoped would be a record-breaking time I was startled by a large man standing near the edge of the pool.


He was most certainly not ready to swim. He was wearing a long heavy maroon tunic. The black turban wrapped around his head easily doubled its size. A striking red streak in his headgear ended just above his right eyebrow which was barely visible and the black scarf continued around his neck. Both eyes were blacked around the edges creating dark voids in his face. I quickly looked away trying not to stare and wondered what country he was visiting from. A woman with a clipboard came up behind him and he followed her towards the man in the E.T. hat taking one long stride for two of hers.

“He is not from around here,” I said to Jessica.

“He could be,” she replied. “He is probably an extra.”

I really did not have any idea what she was talking about, but I asked if she knew the man in the baseball cap who was talking to the scary turbaned man.

Jessica told me that the E.T. capped man was the director of a movie and that her mother was one of the actors. I wasn’t big into Hollywood, but something clicked and I realized that the man in the cap was the director of E.T. who now seemed vaguely familiar to me.

When recounting the story – this is the point where people say, “Oh my God! That was Steven Spielberg! Did you flip out?” No, I did not flip out. I was 11 and the man in the cap was a grown up in the corner of the garden working and annoying the peacock. I went back to playing in the pool with Jessica relieved that the man with the creepy eyes was wearing a costume and not a strange hotel guest.

Jessica was not alone at the pool. With her was a talkative outgoing woman with crazy curly strawberry hair who I immediately adored. Her name was Jamie and she was a friend of Jessica’s mom, Kate. We took a break from swimming and Jamie told us that Jessica was going to be traveling with her mom while they made the movie that was going to be a sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark. She said she had just finished helping with the casting of a movie version of Annie and when her friend needed help with Jessica she agreed to come along. I had many questions about the movie version of Annie – now that is something that does make an 11 year old interested in musical theatre flip out. “It might sound fun,” she said, “but you didn’t have to listen to thousands of girls sing…The sun’ll come out tomorrow…” She mimicked the girls and showed me the hand gestures they were all taught by their moms. “Gag me.” She said pointing to the back of her throat.

Mom came over with my sister and I introduced her to my new friends. My mom had seen the first Indiana Jones movie and knew who Steven Spielberg was, so I guessed that he was pretty famous. Jamie told us all that they would be filming in the area for several weeks and that she and Jessica could really use some company because she didn’t think there would be anything for her them to do in the area.

Kandy article

She asked if maybe I would join them on some of the film shoots so Jessica wouldn’t be so bored. I agreed and also offered to take them around Kandy as I thought there would be a lot of things they would be interested in. We told her about the Kandy Market, the Temple of the Tooth, my school, etc. Jamie seemed very interested in gems and she and my mom began talking about topaz and rubies.

Before we left Jessica wanted to introduce me to her mom who was working upstairs in their room. Mom agreed and we followed them upstairs. There were a few people bustling around the room. Kate Capshaw greeted her daughter with a huge hug and kiss and welcomed us into her room which was the largest hotel room I had seen in Sri Lanka. I commented on the size and she said “You should see the one where they are keeping Mr. and Mrs. Longfellow.” Our puzzled looks were enough for her to tell the other ladies that she would be right back. We followed her downstairs where there were a series of retail shops – gems, Sri Lankan crafts and clothes, etc. One shop was empty and there was a sheet that obscured most of the display window. But peering below, you could see two giant pythons pressed up against the glass in one section. They were impressive snakes. Kate shuddered and turned around. “I have to have a scene with those things,” she said. “I am not looking forward to it.

The next day we met back at this pool. There were no longer costumed cast members bothering the peacock and he was strutting around demanding attention – occasionally he would emit a sound that seemed like the cross between a kazoo and a large cat or shake open his feathers into a colorful fan. Jessica and I had lunch at the poolside bar. A man walked up to us. He seemed to know Jessica. “Man, it is hot,” he said as he sat on the stool next to us. “Not if you swim,” said Jessica. He asked me what was good to eat and I told him that I was partial to their egg salad and crispy French fries, but I warned him as I always did any foreigner that the ketchup wouldn’t taste the same as at home. “Egg salad sounds good. How do you know so much?” he asked. “I live here,” I said. “At the Swiss Hotel?” he inquired. I giggled and explained why we were living in Kandy for the year. Jessica said, “He is in the movie with my mom.” At this point a waiter came over and stood quietly clearly wondering if the man wanted to order something. The big man looked at me and made a face as if to say “How do I do this?” I ordered him an egg salad and Jessica and I chatted with him as he waited. He had a lot of questions about the weather and the country. I explained to him about monsoons and my dad’s studies of Buddhist nuns and my school. When his sandwich arrived he offered me half, but I had already eaten. Plus, I noticed he was a big man and I was sure he could eat the entire thing – which he did in several bites. He signed the check and then shook my hand. “I’m Harrison Ford. It was nice to meet you. Maybe I’ll see you around.”

Not only did he see me around, but he may have saved my life. You’ll need to tune in again if you want to hear that story.


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.

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.

Our extended family in Kandy

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Joseph and his dizzying array of dishes

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

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

October 14, 1982

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

Judith Bloss

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


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!