It can be challenging to keep a house on the edge of the jungle on the Southern coast of the tropical island of Sri Lanka, from being taken over by the elements.
The elements tend to be invasive… Strong rains lead to columns of millions of little black ants and baby frogs; humidity means risk of damp and mildew. Sometimes it feels as though we are “glamping” in a hard shelled tent ~ the blending between the outdoors and the inside of the house, can be rather blurry.
We have no screens on the windows. No air conditioning, only ceiling fans and fresh air, and between the tops of the walls and the roof there is a small open space, all the way around the house. This space is in most Sri Lankan basic homes, a practical tropical feature which allows hot air to escape, but of course it also allows for little creatures of the forest to enter. Ours is not a hermetic home. This makes maintenance and cleaning a constant challenge. Help! How to keep up with all of this??
And then one day, everything changed.
That was the day I, Peta, met Bandu.
I jumped into a tuk tuk to get a ride home from the beach. The tuk tuk driver was particularly friendly I asked him during the ride if he knew where the best place to get fresh coconuts was. And he replied “Madam, I bring you coconuts. Tomorrow! My name is Bandu.”
The next day a large branch with bright orange coconuts still attached, was delivered to by Bandu to me, as promised. Pretty exciting stuff, having fresh coconuts delivered to our front door.
“Madam, I open coconuts?”…. And within minutes, a coconut was chopped open outside on the ground, the coconut water poured into a jug and the flesh scooped into a bowl.
“How much for the coconuts, Bandu?” I asked. “No madam. No money. Coconuts from my garden. For you.” And so it began….
Bandu noticed that our front porch was covered in leaves. A big no no in Sri Lanka. He offered to sweep it for us. “Bandu, do you know anyone who can help me keep this house clean, once or twice a week?”, I asked, thinking there might be someone in his community looking for work.
“Madam. I will clean!” he said enthusiastically. When I heard this offer, I was surprised, but delighted because Bandu has an easy demeanor and had already shown initiative and generosity. I naturally, had tagged him as a “tuk tuk driver”.
“Can you start tomorrow?” was my immediate reaction to his offer.
And this was a game changer.
Bandu whipped the place into shape in time at all. After a couple of weeks, he asked if his wife Nilu, could help him clean. “No extra money madam.” Sure I thought, why not?Nilu is as delightful as he is. And so, Bandu and Nilu came into our lives and have become an integral part of our experience here.
No matter how many times we have asked Bandu to call us Ben and Peta, cultural habits are heard to break and the Colonial past encapsulated in the automatic use of Madam and Sir is unshakable, however awkward it feels to us.
There are so many little things that Bandu does seemingly effortlessly that make life easier for us.
He gives us tuk tuk rides when needed (when we prefer not to go by motorscooter for whatever reason), changes the gas for the stove, feeds the dogs, delivers the clothes to the laundry guy and back and finds us workers for repairs, such as electricians, carpenters etc. He is in short, a dream come true.
A few weeks after meeting Bandu and Nilu, we were invited to their house for dinner one evening and we happily accepted. Bandu came to get us in his bright green tuk tuk, to drive to his house which is about ten minutes away.
Their house is a work in progess. As of now, a concrete shell, with grand plans for continued improvement. Blankets and fabrics cover the openings which one day will have real windows and doors.
We got to meet their two young sons, Dimalsha and Isuru and as well, other members of his family who were all there for this occasion. His brother in law was in the kitchen cooking and all sorts of delicious aromas were wafting our way….
A large table in the center of the room was covered with a white table cloth, plates full of a variety of curries. And….. two settings of white plates.
“Bandu, why are there are only TWO plates on the table?” I asked.
“For you and Sir. We eat later.” He said with insistence as though I should know this…
Ben and I looked at each other knowing that we were both very uncomfortable with this arrangement…. There was no way we were going to eat on our own, with them watching and waiting to eat later. No way! It took a few rounds of our insistence that we would be way happier if we all ate together. Eventually they relented. More plates were brought out by one of the kids and placed around the table. Whew, we could relax now.
“But Madam” Bandu said despairingly “we don’t have enough forks.”
“But Bandu, in Sri Lanka everyone eats with their hands right? So we will eat with our hands, yes?”
And so it was that we all sat down together around the table to a plentiful and delicious feast of vegetable curry, a fish curry, and fresh grilled fish and shrimp. In addition there was of course Sri Lankan sambol (a grated coconut and chili dish), and papadams (fried crispy “crackers”).
Nilu’s curries were delicious. She had thoughtfully toned down the level of spiciness, as Sri Lankan curries are typically fiery hot. Sri Lanka, earned a place in history for its trade of exotic spices for several centuries and the palate of spice combinations is deep and extensive and makes Sri Lankan curry unique amongst Asian curries.
At the end of the meal, when we could eat no more, Bandu took us home in his tuk tuk. A great example all in all of the infamous Sri Lankan hospitality.
A few weeks later while we were traveling to visit family, Bandu and Nilu took care of our house in our absence, fed the dogs, watered the garden and kept an eye on things. Our friend Brook lived in the house for a while with her boyfriend and baby. Nilu,seeing them struggle to keep up with the demands of a newborn, offered to cook veggie curries for them, at our house.
I started to get Facebook messages from Brook telling me how great Nilu’s curries were and saying we just had to ask Nilu to cook meals in the house for us when we get back. Hadn’t thought of that!! But hmmm, what a grand idea!
And so, we now have in home authentic Sri Lankan veggie (and sometimes fish) curries once or twice a week, cooked either by Nilu, or Nilu with Bandu assisting her and sometimes with us watching, learning how to prepare these local classics and chatting in the kitchen about food and cooking. Nilu learned how to cook from her mother, who learned from her mother.
(Not shown are the curry leaves, spices and coconut milk, essential ingredients in Sri Lankan curries.)
As we finish writing this post, on a quiet Saturday morning, Bandu and Nilu arrive in their tuk tuk with tiffin boxes (Indian style metal stacking food containers), in hand.
“Want eat string hoppers for breakfast, Madam?”.