Unmarried in Kandy (and Other Stories)

Our last few days in Kandy were a flurry of pineapples and processions.

One evening, a local family – Kolitha, Deepthi, Chamodi, and Dilumi – hosted me for a cooking lesson and dinner.

Their home sat next to a flooded rice paddie, and their two shy, beautiful daughters welcomed me by placing a green betel leaf in my palm, a symbol of friendship and respect.

In the kitchen we set to work, first making a kind of quick-pickled, pan-fried vegetable chutney to be served with the curries.

We put on the kaha bath, a spiced rice made with ghee and coconut milk, and fried mustards seeds to get the dhaal started. The dish I quickly became obsessed with was pineapple curry, which began with the dissection of a whole, fresh pineapple.

In a clay pot over high heat, we fried it in coconut oil with spices, chili, and a few pinches of cane sugar, then finished the caramelized fruit with a pour of thick coconut milk.

Once we began eating, it took every last bit of my willpower to avoid consuming the whole dish.

The spread also included spicy devilled beef; tiny, puffed pakoras; and a sweet, chocolatey biscuit pudding for dessert. This family was unbelievably kind to me, and darnit they know how to cook. If they read this, I want them to know that fresh pineapple curry was the first thing I made once I’d returned to Canada!

The next morning we visited the Kandy Public Market, where I found more pineapples; every vegetable, fruit, spice, and fish in the region; and of course, plenty of friendly people.

The market is a mix of permanent stalls, both indoor and out, with one large main hall that’s crowded and noisy.

Vendors hawk their produce by shouting good-naturedly, as much to each other as to potential customers. Most of the fresh food is sold by grams and pounds, with battered, ancient-looking hand scales and weights used to determine the cost.

At one point, a tractor and trailer pulled through, and (the still yelling) vendors scrambled to gather their food scraps to dump in the passing bin.

I watched as one tiny, lithe man swung from a rope above his fully-enclosed stall and ran to catch the tractor before it left. When he returned, he swung gracefully back up to his perch, and resumed his endless sales pitch. A small, vegetable-vending Tarzan.

As I wandered through, I was offered samples of sticky tamarind and small cuts of fruit, answering the same three questions as I snacked:

I am from Canada.

No, I am not married – he (Seth) is not my husband.

Yes, I am enjoying your country very much!

In Sri Lanka, it’s not just men who asked if I was married – it was everyone. Most people I spoke with for more than 10 seconds asked me about my marital status, then stared at me wide-eyed, but generally without judgement, when I answered “No.” They just didn’t quite know what to make of me, which I found amusing.

(Still unmarried), I continued on to the indoor portion of the market, where a man stood behind a counter selling supplies for betel quids. They’re a mild, chewable drug that’s popular in many parts of Asia, and consist of an areca nut wrapped in betel leaves and coated in slaked lime.

They turn people’s mouths red, so if you’re not used to seeing them, the result is....well.....terrifying.

When I visited one of the market’s fish vendors, I found myself within a dimly-lit, fly-swarmed stand, being handed a winged fish by a man with an entirely red mouth.


On our last evening, we walked to a far more serene place.

The Temple of the Tooth, which sits on Bogambara lake, houses one of the Buddha’s teeth, Sri Lanka’s most significant relic. The temple has a golden roof and an endless stream of pilgrims moving toward it, though their path is now regulated within the vast complex.

In 1998, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) detonated a truck bomb in front of the temple, killing sixteen and injuring dozens more. Vehicles can no longer drive up to the main entrance, so we walked slowly up the long approach with everyone else, many of them carrying lotus flowers as an offering. The temple looked as though it had been carved out of sugar, and since we visited at dusk, the sky was gold.

Inside, drummers banged loudly, and we joined the crowd as it moved upstairs.

The temple is made up of shrines within shrines, like a sacred matryoshka doll, and the longer we stayed, the more doors we saw opened. Upstairs, there were huge lineups of people waiting for one in particular, which was opened on the hour and allowed a glimpse of an ornate, jewel-draped box.

I think the tooth was buried within it, but to be honest, I’m not quite sure. I read somewhere that the real tooth may be hidden elsewhere…

We visited a room with centuries-old books handwritten on dried ola leaves, and as we left, saw hundreds of oil lamps burning in a small, glass-walled building.

It was a completely different experience from our visit to the monks, but no less extraordinary.

Next, we’ll be hopping on a train and riding the famous route through tea country to Bandarawela!


*This is part of a series of posts I'm writing for World Nomads, as part of their incredible Passport and Plate program. Read about it and their other scholarships here!


Taking Breakfast to the Monks

One morning in Kandy, we woke up very early – so early, the city’s many stray dogs were still sleeping, and the roads were not yet crowded with tuk tuks. We climbed into the van, and held on carefully to the containers of well-wrapped dishes we’d been handed. This was precious cargo; we were taking breakfast to the monks.


Though its religious diversity is astounding, Sri Lanka is predominantly a Buddhist society. The day before, Asanga had told me the monks at temples are fed by locals, who organize a rotating schedule amongst themselves. When it’s your day, you rise at daybreak, and transport a homemade breakfast – typically milk rice, fish curry, sambal, and some fresh fruit – to the temple.

The temple we visited was small, extremely modest in comparison to those that serve as pilgrimage sites. It sat up on a hill, consisting of a series of living quarters, the small temple itself, a shrine, a bright white stupa, and a large outdoor area for classes. When we arrived, we removed our shoes at the door, and were led into the back kitchen area where we unwrapped the food. To the sounds of monkeys scrambling overhead on the tin roof, we prepared a special plate as an offering to the Buddha. When it was ready, I carried it up the stairs to the temple, and placed it on the shrine.

From the kind monk who’d followed me in, I was instructed to unroll a mat, sit down, and place my hands in a prayer position. He sat next to me on a small stool, and began chanting.

I knelt, with the light of early morning filtering in, thread-like trails of incense rising up, and the words of a monk filling the colourful, sacred space. It was a privilege beyond comparison. My mind began its own chant, reminding me that “Four days ago I was in East Vancouver, and now I am in Sri Lanka, in a Buddhist temple, sitting next to a monk.” Sometimes, though absolute proof surrounds me, I find it difficult to believe things.

After the meal was offered, I was shown a part of the temple I hadn’t expected: the monk pulled back a blue satin curtain to reveal the Hindu God Vishnu.

While the religious intricacies are far greater than I comprehend or could explain, the simple explanation is this: there has been a certain amount of crossover between Buddhism and Hinduism in Sri Lanka, a blend which reflects both the religions’ tolerance for other beliefs, as well as the social overlap of the two cultures as they co-exist on the island. It kind of felt like seeing a Koran in a church; it's a somewhat strange sight, but ultimately a reassuring one, as it implies a sense of understanding.

Afterwards, I spoke with Sri Amunugana, another one of the monks at the temple. Before we left, he tied a white string around my wrist, a sign of peace and protection. Also, as you can see here, I was pretty much a giant in Sri Lanka.

Then, in an act that was amusingly reflective of modern times, he gave me his email address and username for the Asian version of Whatsapp. Monks may live simply, but they definitely move with the times.

Close to the end of our visit, crowds of children began arriving for classes that could be considered the Buddhist version of Sunday School. They were impeccably groomed; the boys wore long tunics, while the girls were dressed in bright white saris, their hair in thick, shiny braids finished with ribbons.

It felt refreshing and surreal to have had this experience by 8am in the morning, with the whole day stretching out before us.

Later that afternoon, the chef at the hotel taught me how to make ‘kiribath,’ the milk rice we’d taken to the monks.

It’s made with white rice, water, fresh coconut milk and salt, and the finished result is a sticky, coconuty pan of pressed rice that’s cut into squares. It’s simple, and so, so GOOD. While we stirred the rice, the chef told me stories of his time as a cook at an American army base in Fallujah.

“Just four days ago I was in East Vancouver, and now I’m in Sri Lanka, learning to make rice milk from a chef who learned how to make lasagna in Iraq.” I had to repeat that one a few times.


*(A note – I chose not to take pictures during the temple visit; the combination of video + photography just seemed too much, and I wanted to enjoy the experience ‘untethered,’ if you will. Seth, however, as he was hired to do, filmed the whole experience, and kindly shared some beautiful stills from his footage. All the images in this post from the temple are his. Thank you, Seth!)

*This is part of a series of posts I'm writing for World Nomads, as part of their incredible Passport and Plate program. Read about it and their other scholarships here!