Uniterra Sri Lanka welcomes Canadians with a lesson in eating

There’s an elephant in the middle of the restaurant and it’s moving.

“That’s amazing!” says Katherine MacGregor. “I don’t think you understand how much I love this.”

I study the animal as it blinks at me with its long lashes. “It looks almost real,” says Robin Shufelt, standing beside me.

It would be harder to tear us away from the animatronic creature if the smell of turmeric and cinnamon wasn’t calling us over to the table. That and Harshani Samarajeewa, the Sri Lankan country coordinator.

She’s seen all this before—the elephant, the restaurant and the wide-eyed wonder of Canadians new to the country. This meal is part of how Uniterra welcomes volunteers and teaches them to put down their forks and eat with their hands.

First, Harshani orders us yellow king coconuts, a Sri Lankan specialty. They’re bigger than their green cousins and sweeter. In a country where we shouldn’t drink tap water, it’s nice to know they’re considered sterile, as long as you drink them right after they’re cut.
King Coconut
Then, we take care to wash our hands thoroughly at a washing station and start a queue at the buffet.

I walk with Harshani down the line and she points out different dishes and suggests I try them. She veers me away from the very spicy, telling me to ease into it. She’s partly concerned about the state of my stomach for my sake and because tomorrow we’re starting a four-day journey around the country by car, dropping off volunteers in the South. It would be better if my stomach stayed settled for the drive.

“Use all five fingers,” Harshani instructs once we’re all seated. She tells us to bring the curries to the rice and mix it in. Then we should scoop the rice onto our four fingers and use our thumb and tongue to get it into our mouth.

Tentatively, we each reach our fingers into our plates. After years of being warned not to “play” wiSABRINANEMIS_ELEPHANT_SRILANKAth my food—especially at a restaurant—it feels like I’m doing something illicit. I’ve always loved a bit of rule-breaking.

At home I hate eating with my hands, hate how sticky my fingers get when I have ribs or hamburgers. But here I can see how it makes things easier. I can do a better job of moving food around and mixing what I want together than I would with a fork.

When we’re finished, we scrub the oils and spices off our hands at a washing station. Then we pose with the elephant. We haven’t seen real ones yet and this seems a bit surreal. It needs to be documented.

In the months to come, I enjoy tagging along to the new volunteer meals. I see their dazed and jet-lagged eyes, their delight at the elephant and the uncertainty they feel when they dig their fingers into a plate of food.

Going back to the restaurant, it feels good to have mastered eating with my hands and to have the certainty of knowing what I have to do each day.

But it feels even better to be part of this ritual. I like welcoming new people. I like letting them know that beyond the weird sleep patterns and disorientation, they’re in a good place. They will master eating with their hands, if they want to. They will figure things out. They will make a difference.