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freckled bananas

Excited to plan our first real family getaway after the move to Saudi, we decided to rent a lake cottage in Sri Lanka, a half-mile inland along the island’s southwestern coast. I found the place online, and made the reservations. Minutes after I booked, the owner called me herself.

I was new to this expat thing; I didn’t expect the barrage of questions.  Did we want to book a visit or two from a nearby masseuse, certified in the traditional ayurvedic methods? The groundskeeper, houseboy, and driver were all included, of course, but how about a babysitter on call? And our own personal chef?  All local people, the woman purred in a throaty British accent. All of them struggling to support families after the 2009 Boxing Day tsunami wiped out the fishing and tourism industries.

Overwhelmed by the options—and yes, feeling a tad guilty about the whole white privilege and relative wealth thing—I finally blurted out that we’d hire them all.

It was the best and worst thing I could have done.  I didn’t know we were soon to be, in every sense of the word, charmed.

Our groundskeeper, Dayapala, turned out to be a smiling old man who lived in a dusty hut just outside the fence. He dredged fallen mangoes from the pool, and fashioned a whirling, click-clacking toy for the kids out of a frond and an acorn.

Our driver, Upali, turned out to be a gentle giant with good reflexes. Every day, he’d pull out on what felt to us like the wrong side of a narrow one-lane road, and proceed to weave the cottage’s little white van around astoundingly <flexible> obstacles. Trucks and tuktuks, buses with people pressed to their sides like well-mannered barnacles. Lumbering doe-eyed cows and raggedy, patchy roosters. Rusty bicycles bearing whole families, wobbling along the thinnest of shoulders. Gaggles of laughing, uniformed schoolchildren as unfazed by the inches-away traffic as the skinny, half-wild dogs sunbathing on the asphalt.

The houseboy, the masseuse, the babysitter: they live in my pictures now as smiling individuals, neat and clean and eager, though I tried and failed to properly pronounce—and therefore remember—their first names.

Janaka, however?  Janaka the chef? The big jovial kid with the goofy, contagious smile, who couldn’t have been more than twenty-five years old?

Janaka was a revelation.

Not knowing what an expat family might be up for, he prepared a “safe for westerners” meal on the night we arrived. We fell into our chairs, exhausted, but here came barbequed chicken, delicately smoked and falling off the bone, a small helping of unfamiliar but delicious mixed greens, and a “side dish” that still makes my mouth water to think of. Janaka called the dish “garlic mashed potatoes,” but I can only describe them as crunchy little golden balls of heaven, with insides so light and fluffy they were practically the texture of whipped cream. Our kids are not picky eaters, but even they recognized this was far above the standard Caesar salad, mac-n-cheese fare I normally threw together.It’s not water I’m afraid of.

We gasped.
We effused.

The next morning, the houseboy showed us to a table laid out with thick cloth napkins the colour of peeled mangoes. Each was folded into a fan and garlanded with tropical blooms from the cottage’s wild, lush perimeter. Janaka sent out some sort of tasty paper-thin crepes we were taught to sprinkle with lime juice and roll in fine sugar. We drank bright pink, tarty-sweet smoothies: dragon fruit juice, courtesy of a tree up the lane.

And that was only a taste, literally, of what was to come.

Each lunch and dinner, we feasted on something amazing: pepper crab, or coconut curries, or fish dishes that flaked like pastry and tasted just as creamy-good. Scallops and sausage and shrimp in what tasted like thirty perfectly balanced spices. His calamari was the best I’d ever sampled. Was there anything this man-boy wonder couldn’t do?

Every breakfast and lunch, a new kind of juice waited for us, usually colour-coordinated with the table settings. We tried watermelon, avocado, mango, passion fruit, papaya, and even the juice of some strange, soft brown fruit we learned the elephants were fond of: wood apple. We gobbled up platters of tropical fruit so natural sugary that my kids are now horrified by the waxy yellow-green bananas from the store; bananas, to them, should be small and freckled all over, even bruised.

The kids spent those five days slipping into the kitchen from out of the pool, into the pool from out of the kitchen. Janaka taught them to help with sambols and dosas, and kept them from handling anything too spicy lest it make its errant way into their tender American mouths. He found them extra chef’s uniforms, huge and white, faux double-breasted with white covered buttons. The kids even helped the houseboy and Janaka’s assistant fish off the dock with long, long branches for poles.

Saying “yes” to the rental’s owner, hiring all those people, was the best thing I’d done.  Those memories are still crystal-clear and treasured. All the staff earned the healthy tips we left behind… and, hopefully, even that little bit of cash helped the various family members they told us about.  Heck, they made us feel like part of the family; for two years, we stayed in touch and kept abreast of the owner’s work at a local orphanage.

But in a way it was the worst thing, because how can I ever go back to the country and not taint those memories with disappointment? How could anything top that trip? Even knowing how silly that question is, I’m reluctant to examine it beyond that. The Sri Lankan pocket in me is stuffed, Cheshire cat stuffed, paw-licking and grooming-all-day stuffed. Thinking of that trip, those people, and even that food practically sets me to purring.

On the hot, humid morning of our final full day in Sri Lanka, the kids and I watched as Janaka, an old-school kitchen scale tucked under his arm, led my husband down to the lakeshore. A fisherman paddled up in his slim wooden boat. Janaka set the scale down, sat back on his heels, and prepared to haggle. My husband stood by and eyed—as did our kids—each crab and each lobster as it laid on the scale and waited, pale belly up and claws slowing grasping, for the men to decide its worth.

That night, the staff set up a small table at the end of the cottage’s long, rickety dock. Tikki torches, white tablecloth, tapered candles: the whole works. We were led down to dinner at sunset, and it was obvious Janaka had gone all out. Lobster, shrimp, four different curries, and a coconut ice cream that’s made it impossible to even look at coconut versions in a grocery’s frozen section.  Our last meal in Sri Lanka was what we imagined five-star restaurant quality to be like.

And if the kids, after witnessing this morning’s “shopping trip” by the dock, would now only poke and prod the steaming shellfishy goodness set before them…?

Well, that just meant there was more for us.