A Sri Lankan Celebration

When we arrived in Matara we were greeted by our hosts Anil and his brother. We are renting their home and they live with their families in a larger home directly behind us. Our back kitchen shutter faces their patio area and entrance to their home. We have tried to learn a few phrases, especially the important ones, but Sinhala is a very difficult language. Jim practiced one day with some people on the street, they laughed and corrected him, but he wasn’t far off. Most people here speak broken English and so far it works with simple questions and answers, we seem to be managing. 

Earlier this week, Anil invited us to attend a celebration for their brother. Absolutely! We asked what the celebration was for and he just smiled and nodded. We asked if we could bring something? Same response. The day before the celebration we ran into Anil’s brother on the street who also invited us to the celebration for their brother. We asked if there was something we could bring? He replied, “your choice.”

The noise of preparation for this celebration started early that morning. There was cleaning, sawing, cutting, banging, washing, decorating, moving; a lot of people doing a lot of work. We still had no clue what type of celebration and I couldn't even do a sneak peak because unfortunately all the windows in our home are frosted and do not open. However, part of the back wall of our kitchen is made of wood and there is a small crack. Yes, we did peep through. But ONLY to see if it would give us a better idea of what kind of celebration we were attending. That way we could educate ourselves of possible customs to show our respect and appreciation. 

From the tiny peep I saw that the half broken concrete dirt floor had been swept and washed. They set up three tables and a makeshift sink, along with an assortment of plastic chairs. The tables were decorated with deep burgundy and bright orange satin tablecloths, along with a purple satin table runner down the middle and were lined with chafing dishes. In front was a cream colored wall and above I could see an orange satin ceiling with tassels dangling. But none of that helped us with figuring out the type of celebration we were about to attend. So to be safe, we decided to educate ourselves and learn about Sri Lankan dinner cultures as a guest.

So it turns out we were invited to our host's brother's funeral ceremony, not a party. I made deviled eggs which should work for any occasion. We arrived punctually at 19:30 and were the last ones there. We were greeted with chairs and took our place on the outskirts of the group. 

The banging we heard all day was scaffolding hung with golden ribbons, lights and catering tables. We sat covered in Deet looking solemnly the part without flinching as the rest of the group was busy smacking here and there. We could barely see the entrance to the house where a monk was performing the last rites. After about 45 minutes, the food started being prepared. What looked like some bread in a wrapper was being brought around and everyone touched it with two hands. When three glasses of water came around on a platter I almost grabbed one, but this was also just an offering we were supposed to touch.

As we walked out the door promptly at 19:30 I had this eerie feeling that we were late. I did a quick peek around the corner and two elderly gentlemen dressed in sarongs made eye contact with me. I popped back quickly, almost dropping the only thing we could bring with the resources at hand, deviled eggs, (and even eggs were hard to find). I told Jim, I think it’s a funeral. I immediately start sweating from the heat and the humidity.

I was a little uncomfortable as we sat down, not just from the heat or the initial looks, but also because I was holding the deviled eggs, which in no time, with this heat, will definitely start to smell. Thankfully Anil came and accepted the gift and welcomed us again. As we sat there, I now understood all the woodworking noise this morning. They put up four columns all wrapped in a vibrant orange satin material that held up a makeshift puffy quilted ceiling of the same orange color. The ceiling perimeter dangled with orange tassels. It was all so beautiful and you could tell a lot of work went into transforming the space. We could hear chanting and praying coming from the open entrance of the home where two young girls and an elderly lady were sitting on the floor. I could only see inside at an angle, but it was filled with people. 

As we continued to sit there, I tried to recall all the cultural things Jim rambled off earlier today as I was using my mind power to write a thank you note in Sinhala. I looked around and tried to take clues from other women, but that wreaked havoc on my nervous belly as everyone was swatting and flicking bugs and mosquitoes. I must have crossed and uncrossed my legs a dozen times. Do I keep my toes facing in or out, played with that for a while. Oh and looking at people’s feet is not a good idea for me either. At one point I put my hand on Jim’s knee only to remove it quickly, was it here there are no signs of public affection? 

After about 45 minutes a woman emerged from the house carrying a tray with a cloth over it. She was bringing it around and presenting it to everyone. People would touch the tray or whatever was under the cloth with both hands, but there didn’t seem to be a consistent way of doing this. Oh please don’t let Jim think it’s an appetizer and lift up the cloth. Phew, Jim was paying attention! Shortly thereafter, another woman came out offering water, with everyone doing like they did earlier. 

When all the offerings were made, there were a brief few seconds of complete stillness, then complete chaos. Anil pulled up and parked his tuk tuk at the entrance and everyone jumped up and started moving chairs. Once there was a pathway from the entrance of the house to the tuk tuk, Anil’s brother, dressed in all white exits the house. Jim and I were right in the aisle and quickly scooted around the tuk tuk to the street. From there we didn’t know what was going on, but everyone had their heads bowed. I briefly made eye contact with a sweet smiling woman who motioned to stay still. So we did. I kept my eyes down and only glimpsed up to see a monk seated in the back and off he went. Once he was gone, people started talking and getting the chairs back out.

I sat there still fidgeting and throwing around smiles when a woman came over to us and introduced herself as the older sister of the brother but made sure we knew she was not the oldest sister. It was her way of making a joke. She spoke broken English with a thick accent and asked us where we were from, how long we would be here and what we thought of her country. We thanked her and told her it was an honor to be invited. This dear sweet woman reminded me in so many ways of someone who was very special to me and my mom, her name was Mary Hall. 

We were asked to go first to serve ourselves. After too many polite declines I nudged Alisa forward to the line. After we scooped who knew what onto our plate, our host moved two chairs to the center of the group and asked us to sit. I knew that wasn't going to fly so we politely declined and found some seats slightly out of the center. There was no doubt we stuck out but sitting right under the light in the center of everything was a little too excessive. Our host offered us forks which we declined having read Sri Lankans eat with their right hand. Well here it goes, first bite down. Holy shit that's hot. Second bite, sure wish I had that water. By the third bite I was exhaling long and slow. I finished up and grabbed a banana which somewhat cooled the inferno burning my throat. 

As soon as they finished filling the chafing dishes, Anil and all his siblings approached us. It felt like all eyes were on us. At this point, I actually trusted Jim’s lead more than my own, so I mentally agreed to do whatever he does..and that is saying a lot. They thanked us for attending and requested we be the first to be served and eat. What? Before the family, before the elders, before friends? Oh NO! I politely speak before Jim does and say no please you go. We went back and forth like this a few times before Jim does the soft touch on the lower back, pretending to be guiding me like a gentleman and actually pushed me forward. 

I go through the line and take a little of everything, except the bread. Just as we were about to go find a corner a woman brought out two seats for us to sit in.....right in front of everyone. As everyone was watching us, Anil approached offering us the only two forks on a platter. We declined the forks and thankfully Jim got us out of us sitting in front of everyone, while we tried for the first time the custom of eating by hand. I felt like all eyes were on me waiting, waiting to see....so I grabbed a handful of rice, soaked up some sauce and placed it in my mouth. 

As I started to chew and look around, I noticed a young boy watching me, he smiled and gave me a thumbs up. I must be doing it right.  Instantly I thought to myself, homemade Sri Lankan food was much better than anything we have eaten here so far....and then it hit me. A fire that started in the back of my throat and crept up to my head. I felt like I was going to pass out, I needed air. As little beads of sweat started forming and dripping off my face I used my right hand to start fanning myself only to realize doing this sent the little pieces of rice, that were stuck to my fingers, flying around the room. I looked at Jim, who confirmed we were in trouble. I searched the room for water, anything to drink…NOTHING! 

I didn’t have a lot on my plate, but I definitely had to eat more than just one bite. I think I might have overdone it on the sauce that I generously added to….EVERYTHING! Now I understand why no one put sauce on the rice and everyone had a piece of bread on their plate. Mary approached me around the third bite to see if I needed anything. My mouth was numb, it burned when I breathed and not wanting to impose, I hoarsely whispered no I am fine as my throat was closing. When she walked away, with watering eyes, I asked Jim for half his bread. 

The whole night I had been observing others in hopes to pick up on the cultural way of doing things. But when a gallon of ice cream was placed on the table and no one moved, I had no choice. If I did get something cold down my throat I was going to die. Thankfully, from past practice and context clues, I was successful at being able to get a scoop of ice cream without embarrassing myself. And even though it was mostly melted and not that cold, it still coated my throat and offered a short reprieve from the pain. I look over at Jim to find him slyly rubbing a small banana on his lips like a giant tube of chapstick. Hey Jim I know you are lactose intolerant but go get some ice cream, I promise it will be worth the pain later. 

And that was it, Alisa got the cues before I did, I was waiting for the after-party. She handed our host’s brother’s wife a handwritten note in Sinhalese that simply said, ස්තූතියි, ජිම් සහ ඇලිසා. Thank you, Jim and Alisa. Her 14th attempt must have been successful because our host's sister read it in perfect English. We received a room full of smiles as we walked back to our home. We're due back tomorrow at 13:30 for more, not sure what. 

As we sat there, mouth still on fire, Jim got comfortable like he was waiting for a party to start. Read the room Jimbo. I made eye contact with Anil's brother's wife and stood. We walked over and I didn't offer my hand, something I remembered Jim reading but returned the bow and kept saying thank you. All the siblings gathered and along with one last thank you I handed them our note. I heard the woman who reminded me of Mary, say my name and immediately mid bow, I raised my head. She looked directly in my eyes and with a gentle smile, said it again...Alisa, correctly and in perfect English. For some reason I immediately got choked up. It had little to do with the fact that she said my name correctly or that she could actually read my note…but more with the familiar look in her eyes and how she said my name. Like I said, everything about her reminded me of Mary.

Since we didn’t have to be at Anil's until 13:30, we planned a beach morning at our neighborhood beach. Beach time here is in small doses. We get to the beach by mid morning and back home no later than noon. UV rays are deadly and after a couple of hours, the rays are even too hot for Jim. 

As soon as you exit our yard, you are on the main street of our neighborhood. We usually head to the beach by going left for about 20 steps, then right for about 50. Today we decided to go right first, it’s about the same distance, just a different walk and part of the beach. 

As we turned off the main road headed toward the beach there was a dog laying down in the middle of the path. You all know how I get with dogs, but Sri Lanakan dogs have been super friendly. I said “hey puppy.” It looks up, wags his tail and plops its head back down. Phew! I love working on conquering my fears and I say to Jim, even the dogs here are friendly and we continue walking to the beautiful blue green waters.

Then all of a sudden I heard it! That half growl….half bark from behind me. That can't be the dog we just passed, he wagged at me. I turn to grab for Jim and as I do his words from the past echo in my head,  “don't ever grab on to me or try to climb up on me because then I can't protect you." As I slowly put my hands down and start walking backwards Jim quickly takes the full frontal position between me and this large, wet, dirty German Shepherd. 

Immediately I know what is happening as I have done it myself, they are having a standoff. Jim enjoys watching me have these every now and then when we are in Mexico. But this is no Chihuahua, it's a big dog, so unlike Jim in these situations, I sprang into action and decided to help. I glance out of the corner of my eye searching for anything resembling a stick, all while keeping my eye on the furiously barking dog. I reach down and about mid grab, say a prayer that what I am about to grab is indeed a stick and free of any creepy crawlers. I grab it quickly. It's a stick…. of some sort, well this is rather light, WTF....a palm branch, well that won't work. 

The stand off went like this....every time Jim turned to leave the dog charged forward barking more ferociously. Jim would then turn back around, advance toward the dog and it would run away. Then Jim would turn around and start walking toward me only to repeat this all over again…many times. 

By this time a young boy came out and ever so slowly started walking and softly talking to the dog. I threw the palm down and picked up a rock and then I did what I knew Jim would have wanted me to do. I ran to the safety of the beach, glancing back every now and again to make sure Jim was okay.  

Despite the recent traumatic event we still enjoyed our time at the beach. Here a few locals have established small makeshift dive shops that offer whale watching, snorkeling and diving lessons. The beach and water is perfect, crystal clear. They all say that you can see a ton of colorful fish and turtles. Every time we’ve been here there are always snorkelers. The first day we saw a peacock walking the beach and today we enjoyed watching a monitor lizard in its natural habitat. 

We heard drums and flutes most of the morning up and down the street. Well about 12:30 our host text and said he's on his way over. With highs in the upper 80's and matching humidity, an AC in the bedroom that doesn't work and a small fan that cycles the warm stuffy air, we both scrambled for clothes. He brought over plate after plate of food. His daughter then appeared with dessert consisting of homemade yogurt and honey, with freshly cut fruits. 

Alisa asked if we should join them and he said, maybe after. Seemed like more of a family affair today. But once he left, we heard the clanging of buffet spoons reminding us that once again we were the first to eat.

The food was absolutely delicious. We both ate with our right hand and silently thanked our host and wished his brother well on his journey.

It seems so customary for me when attending a funeral to help, console and serve the grieving family.  At last night's funeral, we were welcomed as honored guests, taking part in a special family ritual to prepare someone they love to attain a good rebirth. I am constantly reminded that life is a journey filled with ups, downs and so many unknowns; but it's experiences like this that give me clarity;  allowing me to learn and grow, feeling humble and grateful for the journey. I am honored to have been invited as a guest to celebrate Anil’s brother with his family as the perform one last act of service on behalf of their brother.

Unlike a Christian funeral, Sri Lankan Buddhists wore white, smiled and celebrated the life of someone not gone but moving on. Where we bring food and condolences to the grieving, our host made sure everyone ate first and would not accept help. This was his gift to those who attended and maybe a final reminder of who his brother was and the memory of who he will always be, albeit not seen. 

While sitting here this evening wrapping up this post, we hear a knock on the door. It's our host Anil, who brings the gift of what we translate as Bee Milk and he apologized for the inconveniences of the last couple of days. Jim replied with no worries and thanked him for allowing us to be part of the ceremony. Anil humbly bowed his head and we said our good nights. This is why we love to travel… this and the beaches!


  1. What a beautiful experience! It would not have happened if you 2 weren't such gracious guests. So delighted to read this - and proud of you two! ❤️


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