Ayurveda and Aunt Chuti

A girl could get used to this Sri Lankan hospitality thing. Sid’s uncle Emil has arranged 6 ayurvedic massage sessions for me during my stay. Folks who know me know I love a good massage. I have a tradition of visiting a spa on New Year’s Day to start the year refreshed and relaxed, so this is exactly what the doctor has ordered. The ayurvedic and traditional Sri Lankan medicine doctor in specific.

In Uncle Emil’s garden paradise sits a small tiled-roofed house that he’s dedicated to private spa treatments. There are two large wooden treatment tables that Sid says are from a special Sri Lankan wood and a wooden steam table. I watch as the doctor and her therapist carry large bottles filled with oils, dark brown and caramel in color. I hear all kinds of mixing and preparations taking place and it makes me anticipate this experience all the more. When I enter, the doctor, Princy and her assistant therapist, Narangela, are all smiles and dressed in traditional saris. They explain that I will have a head massage and face massage followed by a foot massage and a full body massage. I will end the treatment on a bed of herbal leaves on the steam table. When I ask about the ingredients instrumental in my massage, I get one response, herbal leaves. This is when I wish I had an interpreter in the spa with me. It seems that it’s hard to translate some of the herbs being used in my treatment from Sinhalese to English, but the doctor does a better job of explaining what the treatments do. The oils in combination with the steam bath will sweay away bacteria and toxins in the body and generally make me more healthy. I’m up for that.

 Narangela is tentative with my head massage at first. She isn’t sure how to navigate my hairstyle, but she gets into a good rhythm moving from head to neck and shoulders. The face massage includes a grainy scrub followed by something that feels like a waxy salve. The doctor handles my foot massage. As I’d learn later from Dr. Princy, the feet are very important in ayurvedic medicine. Pressing various points along the feet, toes, the fleshy parts and heel, influence the health of other parts of the body right up to the head. Both doctor and therapist go to work on me for the full body massage. I’ve never had two people give me a massage before, but I can see the benefits. It felt a bit like a symphony. The doctor was the conductor, she’d start the movement on one side, a vigorous stroke up and down left leg, the therapist followed until they were both in synch. This continued up to midriff, arms and back. When I am throughly dressed and drenched in herbal oils, it’s time for my steaming. Princy lifts the hood of the steam bed to reveal neatly arranged flat green leaves on a grid of wood and I feel the instant release of heat. She instructs me to lay on the leaves, leaving room for my head to jut out of my steamy enclosure. I imagine what a roast chicken must feel like. Then, she puts a towel between my neck and the opening of the steam bed and asks, “Is warm OK?” I nod, adjusting my legs inside to avoid extreme steaming. Princy and I chat for a bit and I learn that she has been a doctor of ayurvedic and traditional medicine for six years. She does treatments at the ayurvedic resort, Barberyn, next to the Coconut Bar, and works with private clients. She tells me that she worked with  Japanese ex-boxer who could no longer turn his head or walk without a cane and after several days of treatment she improved his range of motion. She said there are no side effects with all natural medicine and I feel  all of the holiday food fixins drip from my body and onto the hot stones below me. I look forward to several more days of this as I wave good-bye to my natural healers.

I return to the Coconut Bar for a post-spa refreshment, coconut water straight from the coconut, followed by a breakfast of Sri Lankan breads, including a crocodile bun sprinkled with brown sugar, strawberry jelly filled pastries and mini banana muffins. More Indian Ocean bathing and lounging ensues. A stream of Coconut Bar fans flow through the bar for a drink, meet friends or just say hello to the proprietor. I meet a German woman who splits her time between Germany and Sri Lanka, embarking upon a new career as an ayurvedic therapist. A trip to Sri Lanka years ago inspired her new profession and she studied at the Barberyn resort next door, known for its ayurvedic programs and institute. It sits on property that Sid and Emil’s grandfather used to own. I’ll continue that story in a bit. I also meet Sonya from Scandinavia and I tell her that I traveled in Denmark this summer. She grew up in Denmark, but lives in Sweden now. She’s made Sri Lanka her new winter vacation spot after she soured on winters in Spain. She said after the she’d been robbed three times by roving Russian gypsies, she’d had enough. I told her I’d seen them at work in Barcelona myself. After a pleasant conversation, I fondly remember the hospitality of my Scandinavian friend Aneliese this summer. As the sun begins to set the cane chairs at the Coconut Bar begin to fill. Uncle Emil boasts that his place is the best place to watch the sunset. His guys are busy getting a drink in every hand as Germans, Brits, Swiss, Scandanivians, Sri Lankans and an American settle in to watch the sun’s slow decline. Uncle Emil, Sid and I take a tour of the construction atop the bar which will become an extension of his guest house, featuring three floors of apartments with stunning views of the Sri Lankan sunset. Uncle Emil and Sid point out the sprawling Barberyn estate next door and tell me that their grandfather used to own the land and sold it for nothing, which they say was for about $1,000 years before Sid was born. They are angered that someone else owns the land they still see as theirs, but it seems to solidify Uncle Emil’s determination to make the Coconut Bar compound into a feel-good destination. He often says, “I just want to be happy and I want to make other people happy.” I want the same for him as we all stand on the top floor of his dream and look out at the ocean.

Earlier in the day, we told Uncle Emil that we wanted crab for dinner. They were caught just up the beach, delivered to us straight away and dropped into a boiling pot in the back. By the end of the day, they had been sufficiently cooked and it was decided that they would be taken to Uncle Emil’s sister Chuti for their final preparations. Stories of Sid’s Aunt Chuti border on legendary. She’s also a hotelier, owner of theBavarian Guest House with her husband Denis. Back in the day, she ran a discotheque at the guest house and Sid at the ripe age of 15 was the DJ. Apparently, Chuti has quite a temper, but I later learn that this is only if you cut up and act a fool. Not unlike a strong African-American aunt, and it seems Sid and his uncle have been on the wrong side of her temper more than once. When we arrive at the Bavarian Guest House there’s a nativity scene still ablaze at its entrance and a Christmas tree twinkles in its lobby. Uncle Emil takes me to meet his sister in the kitchen where she’s hard at work amidst cooking pots, preparing dinner for her paying guests. She greets me kindly, but seems to have a few choice words for her brother who has dropped in at the most inopportune time. We sit at a table in the hotel’s courtyard and have a Lion, a Sri Lankan beer, and I hear more stories of how Aunt Chuti can so nice and so mean at the same time. We notice that Sonya from Sweden happens to be staying at the hotel and she is celebrating her birthday. She told me on the beach earlier that she was celebrating her 71st. I go over to say hello and take a birthday photo for her. She seemed ecstatic and living life as a “pensioner” or retiree to the fullest.

 Soonafter, Chuti delivers a feast of potato salad, mixed salad, chips and the most flavorful crab ever. She said that she essentially stir fried the boiled crab in soy sauce, leeks, garlic and ginger. The sauce was a perfect compliment to the sweet crab meat and we sit in silence for a bit, aside from the sound of cracking crab legs and the sucking of succulent meat from its shell. Finally, I was able to get Chuti’s side of the fabled tales about her. She explains that when Sid and Uncle Emil show up they’ve already had a bit to drink and can get rather loud, which is when she has to put them out. It turns out that Uncle Emil may be a poor influence on her husband, too. When the two of them went out one night they returned without the front bumper of the car. Everyone has their limits and tomfoolery is Aunt Chuti’s. She and I hit it off famously though and  she tells Sid to bring me back for a traditional Sinhalese breakfast. I can’t wait.

Sri Lanka

About Robin

Robin Bennefield is the author of the blog Robins Have Wings, which is not just a blog; it is a travel manifesto, reminding her—and maybe you—to take flight and embark upon unexpected journeys near and far.

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