From the day I arrived in Sri Lanka, to long after I returned home from my visit, I felt the love. People travelled far to meet my family and I for the first time, invited us over “for a minute” or a quick lunch between other visits, but had lavish spreads (20+ dishes) and waited on us as is the tradition when one has guests over. The convening happens before and after the meal, over the tray (always a tray) of brightly coloured cordial in tiny glasses or over tea post-meal. That is the time for hugs and talking quickly to catch up, for showing photos and videos of children who don’t shy away or groan, but rather sit with you in comfort knowing you are simply proud of them and are amazed at how beautifully they sing and don’t mind being put on the spot because to share these little gifts is to draw you closer into their family, as if you weren’t estranged in any way for a single day, or every day of your lives since birth, and not by thousands of miles and 10 time zones. But back to serving meals. If you didn’t understand the custom, you would think that Sri Lankans fawn over their guests. The difference is subtle but, actually, they wait on them. The entire meal is made with the guests in mind, to the point where cooks genuinely want to know what you would like to eat and it’s not impolite to ask for your favourites, and it is served that way too. Your hosts don’t eat until you eat, and they don’t even sit with you. They often don’t sit until you’re done, because how would they serve you? You don’t often have to reach for food, your hosts watch for what is running short on your plate and serve you before you know you need more. Not having seconds is what is impolite, they made all of this food for you. None of it is done, both serving and being served, with a hint of discomfort and I’m always amazed when even young children serve me. Being asked to serve monks, which is the only time I’m ever expected to serve anyone in my life, still makes me feel shy and awkward. I don’t know the cues, which side to serve from, I worry I will spill or serve too much of what is meant to be a condiment. I am not as intimate with every single element of our cuisine, even today, as my young second and third cousins are at age eight. But they are taught and they experience themselves that to serve guests a meal is to have them have a truely thoughtful experience in your home. That’s why you invited them over, so they could fully enjoy a meal made for them.
Beyond meals, we were in everyone’s thoughts the whole time. One of my cousins hosted a dinner for us and took us to a 6-hour-long religious festival while he and his family stood behind us so we could see among the crowds, on his birthday. He called us suddenly the following weekend knowing we were in another city, five hours away, to ask if they could escort us on any outings there. Another cousin’s husband who I couldn’t meet over lunch one day–he was held up at work–showed up at the temple we were visiting the next day to meet us during his lunch break, which allowed us under 2 minutes together but at least he got to meet us. This was the husband of my cousin whom I’d met for only the first time the day before. Their home is in an adjoining but completely separate town from the temple he showed up at but he came to the temple because he could, and when would he get the chance to meet us again? I was reminded of every time I wrinkled my brow and declined my parents request to go from my home in central Toronto to theirs in the suburb of Scarborough to visit a relative I had never heard of before. I’m surprised at how that one-minute surprise visit and that one phone call stand out among the highlights of the trip for me. They let us know we were family, site unseen, as if we’d lived with them all along instead of all the way over here on the other side of the world.
Or at least some of us did, my aunt’s visit was extended. People were upset that they couldn’t serve us a meal, we were upset to still not manage to fit in a visit to everyone we wanted to see. I returned to life here at home. Them? They still think of us. My uncle–that is, my third cousin’s wife’s father whose house we visited but could not stay at for longer than a hello (instead, he cut fruit fresh from his tree within a minute of us remarking on the taste of the juice we were served on the requisite tray of drinks alongside many snacks)–he set to work on making (making!) the spoons you see above for my aunt to take home for us. Two of my first cousins whom my aunt was staying with, made me a nightgown and housecoat in between hosting my aunt, going to work, raising their kids, keeping their homes as usual. Their father harvested what must be all of their black pepper from their gardens and sent it back carefully wrapped for us to use in our curries. My aunt went to the jeweller to pick up an order of mine that wasn’t done by the time I had to leave–a jeweller she introduced me to on an afternoon she booked off to drive me to and from my residence since she knew him and could advise me on the right price to pay for gold and make sure I got something properly crafted. We are still in their thoughts and I am changed for having met them. Theirs is a different way to love. It cradles me, all the way over here.
Now that you know about the people, you know the main reason to visit Sri Lanka. But then there is the food, the ruins, the shops, the museums and of course, the beaches. All of that is coming up in a special series of city guides over the coming weeks. Even if you’re not going tomorrow–and everyone agrees that you should–there is enough food, artisan-crafted goods and decor to entice and inspire us in our kitchens, rooms and lives right here.