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.