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


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.

Monkey see. Monkey shoe!

Another dusty hot day at another temple. I would often accompany Dad on his research excursions and on some of these investigative trips he would take an opportunity to visit temples or statues that he had not yet seen. On this particular day, we left Kandy in the morning and traveled several hours North and East to Polonnaruwa, an ancient Sri Lankan capital. The golden age of this sprawling city was during the reign of King Parākramabāhu (1153-1186).

Parakramabahu Polonnaruwa

This King is credited with saying “Do not let a drop of water seep into the ocean without benefiting mankind” and his planning and forward thinking led to numerous reservoirs and irrigation systems throughout the area which allowed the area to flourish. Buddhism and art also blossomed when Parākramabāhu was in power and there are many beautiful statues and carvings that can still be seen there today. I am very excited to revisit the ancient site when we return to Sri Lanka.

In 1982, while we were on the island, Polannaruwa was named an UNESCO world heritage site. Also in 1982, Duran Duran filmed parts of one of its iconic videos amidst the ruins of the ancient city. I was very excited to recognize familiar sites when watching “Save a Prayer” on Friday Night Videos when I returned to the United States.

On this trip, we were not visiting the well-known towering statues of the Buddha or the crumbling palace. We were visiting a small shrine on the outskirts of the city where my father was looking for some carved symbols. Unlike the more famous and popular large stuppas and stone Buddhas, the building we were visiting was not inundated by tourists. When we arrived, the building appeared empty until we caught site of a man sitting cross-legged in the shadows next to the door. He was carving a long piece of wood in his lap. Shavings covered his sarong and his bony legs and several completed walking sticks rested against the stone entrance. We greeted the silver-haired man as we grew closer and as he lifted his head to return our hello we saw that his eyes resembled saucers of milk. Cataracts completely obscured his vision but his carvings were amazing. The walking sticks were covered in intricate depictions of some of Sri Lanka’s most iconic imagery –  stupas, lotus flowers, elephants, dancers, rice paddies, tea workers… He ran his fingers over the stick he was carving – an almost finished depiction of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy was taking shape at the top. My father expressed an interest in the carving and the man quoted a price that was much too low for his fine work, but still higher than we knew we should pay. He indicated he would be done soon and my father could purchase it. Dad indicated he would think about it.

We all slipped off our shoes and left the old man to his artistry. After my father had examined the temple, we exited the structure and watched the old man work on his carving. It was late afternoon and a large troop of monkeys seemed to be interested in our group. The blind man smiled as his calloused hands worked the knife with surprising dexterity. He quoted my father a price much lower than his original asking and my father agreed. Black monkey eyes peered at us over the edge of the temple roof. A few frolicked in nearby trees. Others sat seemingly uninterested scratching their bellies on the crumbling wall surrounding the structure. As we chatted with the carver, suddenly we heard a ruckus behind us and turned to see three monkeys scampering up the side of the building and leaping one by one from the roof to a nearby branch which bent almost to the ground under their weight before springing back in the air.


“What does he have in his hands?” Dad asked pointing to one. I strained to see what it was as the monkey began banging the object against the trunk. Something dropped to the ground as a second smaller monkey grabbed for the object. Not wanting to give up his prize, the larger monkey scampered off into the tree chased by his friend.  We turned back to the man who was brushing tiny shavings from crevices along the stick. By the time the walking stick was finished and we had praised the old man’s work, the sun was just above the horizon. We thanked him and went to put back on our shoes. Mine were nowhere to be found. It was then that we realized what the monkeys had been holding as they played in the trees. We walked over to the base of the tree and searched for the object we had seen fall, but could not find either of my shoes.


We had packed a small bag and were staying the night in Pollonaruwa, and the flip flops I had been wearing were the only pair I had with me. The blind carver shook his fist at the trees and yelled at the animals to bring back my shoe, but apparently they were not inclined to listen. So, we hopped back in the van and drove into town where our driver said we were sure to find a Bata shoe store.

We did spot the familiar red logo along the main street, but when we arrived the metal gate was already shut and the lights were off. The store would not open until morning. So, like so many that walked up and down the streets of Pollanaruwa without shoes on a regular basis, I went barefoot. It was a strange sensation to walk along the sidewalks with no shoes. Although the sun had set, the pavement was still warm. I paid special attention to avoid the murky red puddles near doorways that I knew to be places where people had spit out the juice of chewed betel nuts.

The next morning we got to the shoe store just as the clerk pushed open the creaky metal gate and purchased the only pair of shoes in my size they had – a two toned pair of leather sandals that I wore until I returned to the United States and my toes grew well past the ends. I loved those shoes. The salesman chuckled when I told him why I needed new footwear and said surely the blind man had trained the monkeys to grab shoes from the temple tourists. I disagreed and explained they seemed more like mischievous adolescents than hardened criminals.  “Maybe the monkey hopes to impress his lady friend,” joked the salesmen and promised to keep an eye out for a primate wearing a used pair of size four flip flops.


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.