October 15th in Sri Lanka was more than just another Saturday: for me and my family it was Poya Day, it was my amma’s birthday, and it was a day full of bonding and fun! (Just for reference, “amma” means mom, “akka” means older sister, and “tatta” means dad in Sinhala – these are my Sri Lankan family members!)
The day started for me with a few hours of much needed extra sleep, then my morning cup of tea followed by a nice little video chat with my loved ones back home. Then my wonderful Sri Lankan family and I were off! We walked over to the bus stop with my akka holding an umbrella above the two of us to protect from the sun (yes, that’s a thing here! And it honestly helps). Then we took a 30-minute ride on the bus to a town called Gampola located in the central province, south of Kandy.
In Gampola, we met with my amma’s friend who is a tailor and we walked over to his incredibly small but quaint shop where another younger man greeted us. It was time for me to pick out a saree for the end of the program party (and just to have). I wanted a nice simple cotton cloth saree and found one that was magenta and blue. We decided it was best to have them sew it into a Kandyan style so that I could just put it on without having to spend time making it (this is what my amma does with all her sarees for work). Here’s a side-by-side comparison of an Indian-style saree (left) versus a Kandyan-style saree (right):
Then the tailor took my measurements and we spent a long time chatting (I showed off my limited Sinhala speaking skills which made them happy) and my akka and amma spent time getting other tailor-related things squared away. My tatta was rather bored and stayed outside a lot (it reminded me of my brother and dad on shopping trips back home…). “MaTe baDaginiy” my akka said (which means that she was hungry) and so lunch was next on the agenda! But first, we stopped by a video store because I wanted to pick up a Bollywood film to watch with akka the next day. They had so many movies but most of them were western or Sinhala with no subtitles so it was hard to find the kind of classic Bollywood film that my akka said she liked – but we picked something out. My tatta also bought a Bollywood music CD because he loves to dance and wanted some music for us to dance to together.
We had a buffet lunch at a restaurant nearby (after walking in the streets and seeing some Poya day celebrations – Buddhist laypeople in white and little girls dancing in traditional Sri Lankan dance clothing!). It felt so nice to be out at a restaurant with my family like I would do in the states. Of course, there were some differences though. For instance, the waitress came by and gave me utensils, assuming I wouldn’t be eating with my hands because I was white (my tatta quickly took the utensils and put it on the table next to us and that was when I realized what they were for and laughed with him about it). The food was the typical yummy Sri Lankan food: bat (rice), parripu (lentils), kukul mas (chicken) curry, and wattaka (pumpkin) curry (among other things). And for dessert we had ice cream (my family really loves their ice cream!)
We found a bus to take us back home and I sat next to the window (my preferred seat since it gets so hot on these buses and the wind feels amazing!) Then all of a sudden it started to rain and I got so excited!! There hasn’t actually been that much rain here and it’s been pretty dreadfully hot. The rain reminded me of Portland, Oregon (where I’m from) with the wet streets and beautiful greenery everywhere (see picture). My arm was resting on the window, getting wet, and I was finally cool for the first time in a while – it was amazing.
After we got home (and I took a much-needed shower) we changed into our white clothing for temple for Poya day (Poya day occurs on the day of a full moon and for Buddhist lay people it is an opportunity to visit the temple for worship). My amma and tatta went to buy flowers to use for worshiping the Buddha. When they got back, akka spent time putting some of these little white flowers in a little bowl to have for the shrine in our house. We took the rest of the flowers, along with a bottle of oil, cotton wicks, and a box of incense, and headed over.
The temple is right up the street from the house and was a nice easy walk. These beautiful white elephants lined the wall of the temple along the street and signaled to me that we had made it to the temple! We went through the gates and spent an hour or so setting everything up. We went in to the Buddha shrine inside and lit incense there as well as outside in front of the Bo-tree. Then we went over to the oil lamps where we filled the little clay bowls with coconut oil, put a cotton wick in them and lit them with one of the other already lit wicks. These oil lamps can be seen outside of every Buddhist temple or shrine and represents “lighting the physical and spiritual darkness.”
Mara Pugh is a Sociology & Anthropology major at Carleton College and studied abroad with IFSA at ISLE Program in Fall 2016. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.