Saturday, January 31, 2015

Have Visa, Will Travel

On Wednesday my husband and I went to Washington DC to get our Visas at the Sri Lankan Embassy. We were told that it could be done in an hour, but we didn't really know if that was true.

As we walked down a quiet street lined with embassies and former embassies, it began to sink in that this adventure of ours is not, indeed, a dream. And then we saw it, the saffron, green and maroon of the Lion Flag of Sri Lanka. We walked through the small but well-tended garden passing beautiful reproductions of ancient Sri Lankan statuary, approached the door to the passport and visa office, down a short flight of steps....

And the door was locked.

So, we went back up the stairs, past the beautiful statuary, up another flight of stairs, into a portico, and through the main Embassy entrance, where we were met by the Liaison officer, a young bright-eyed graduate or intern. She came with us back to the door, but also could not open it. Newly appointed to her position, she tried every little doorbell and knocker she could find, and eventually hit the right one. Turns out the door wasn't locked, just stuck! The gentleman who came to our rescue gave a huge smile when Steve spoke to him in Sinhala, one of the two official languages of Sri Lanka.

The liaison was surprised to hear that Steve spoke both official languages - Sinhala and Tamil, and after a brief discussion about the merits of various universities where one could learn them and Steve's Fulbright project, we were invited to attend the Ambassador's Independence Day Party on February 4th. This national celebration commemorates the political independence of Sri Lanka from the British in 1948. There are flag-hoisting ceremonies, dances, parades, performances, a presidential speech, tributes to national heroes, a two-minute period of silence, a show of military might, and religious observances, all designed to promote ideas such as commitment, bravery, confidence, dedication, national unity, patriotism, nationalism, peace, national responsibility and awareness of national history in the minds of people. Unfortunately, we were unable to accept the invitation, but were invited to meet with the Ambassador when we return to give him a report on our trip and Steve's research.

Everyone who passed us expressed happiness and surprise that Steve could speak the language. The woman at the desk told him that his Sinhalese was very good, and promised us that she would have the visas ready in an hour. We were invited to have some Sri Lankan tea (Our answer was " මම තේ බොන්නේ නෑ", roughly pronounced Tay bon ee nay, or "I don't drink tea") and to wait in the sitting area if we liked. After looking at the many wonderful pieces of art in the small but cozy lobby, we sat on the traditional cane furniture. Steve read a Sri Lankan newspaper, in which there was a full-page spread on the use of the English word 'need'. This was lesson 48 in the series, so it was readily apparent that many Sri Lankans are interested in learning English. I read a pamphlet that discussed the seven senses found in Sri Lankan culture - the five that we use (sight, sound, taste, touch, scent) and two others (feel, balance). Feel is concerned with the relation between form and function; balance concerns the wellness of the soul.

After a few moments, the person at the desk came out, and informed us that she did not realize that I was a Canadian, and returned a portion of my Visa fee. I looked at Steve, smiled, and said, "See? It pays to be Canadian!" Since both Sri Lanka and Canada are members of the Commonwealth, we do not pay as much as Americans for the visa.

As we waited, Steve continued to speak Sinhalese to anyone who passed by, including a woman who told him about a Sri Lankan restaurant nearby. A scant thirty-five minutes later our Visas were ready, with an added surprise - the Ambassador had decided to grant them gratis (no charge) because Steve was a Fulbright recipient.

We left to do some other errands, and then later that evening went to the Banana Leaf Restaurant for my first experience with authentic Sri Lankan food. What a feast! We began with Masala Vadai (lentil patties with Sri Lankan spices), Spring Rolls (potato, green onions, and spices covered in a crispy batter), and Vegetable Cutlets (reminiscent of a samosa, but without the wheat wrap on the outside), served with hot sauce and mint chutney. I usually do not care for mint chutney, but this was far and above the best I have eaten. Nor do I usually eat spicy food, but I decided go for the hot sauce anyway, and to my surprise, found that it was delicious and did not upset my stomach at all. But it was HOT! One tiny drop touched the soft palette at the back of my mouth, and instantly the blocked sinuses and ear canals that I have been struggling with for nigh on two months cleared. I could hear again!

Next we had String Hoppers, "a famous Sri Lankan dish made with spaghetti like strings steamed on small cane trays accompanied with kiri hodi (coconut and onion gravy) and coconut sambol." I could have eaten these all day! The coconut gravy was so good that I actually used a spoon to eat the remainder like a soup.

This was followed by Coconut Roti (a sort of unleavened bread made of wheat and coconut flour and served with an onion relish). The piece de resistance was the Vegetable Lampris, a neat little package packed full of goodness: "A special dish created by Dutch who lived in Sri Lanka 600 years ago and it has been remaining since now and became a very special festival meal. Specially cooked saffron rice.... Accompanied with cashew curry, eggplant moju, seeni sambol, ash plantains, boiled egg.... Wrapped in a Banana Leaf and baked."

And what sort of celebratory dinner would it be without dessert? This was another dish I could have eaten all day - Watalappam, a rich pudding made from coconut milk, jaggery, cashews, eggs, spices that was originally from Malaysia.

Just like the door, where we tried and tried and were finally greeted by a nice surprise, our dinner was also a nice surprise for me. I cannot wait to sample more Sri Lankan food, and perhaps learn to make some of the dishes myself.

Have visa, will travel...will eat!