1. A journey to a sacred place or shrine.
2. A long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.
At 2550m, the Lankan name is Sri Pada (literally, Holy Footprint) and by Sri Lanka’s 70% Buddhist population, it is viewed as the place where Buddha’s footprint was left on his visit to Sri Lanka. Christians and Muslims call it Adam’s Peak, accounting a similar story, that this is where Adam first stepped on earth after being banished from heaven (Sri Lanka being Eden). Tamil Hindus consider it Lord Shiva’s footprint. There are six or so “routes” up to the top, the easiest one being a mere 5,200 nice, relatively even steps the entire way. The back-side route is roughly twice as far, and takes seven hours or so, and other locals had told me the only way they do it is up the rocks, on the Western face… but I figured I’d leave that for another day…
Things started off badly. Or maybe not….
Hopping off the bus in Hatton, I called Helga to see when she’d be arriving and where she’d like to meet up. We had agreed back in Kandy to climb together, as a pilgrimage is not to be a lonesome task, but upon answering the phone she explained that she had walked into a library at about ten o’clock that morning, and was simply not yet ready to leave the comfort of a few thousand books. I was angry at first but sympathized, and on the phone I chuckled, vaguely recalling the time I nearly had to be physically removed from a library in Taipei at closing time.
It was on the next bus, to Dalhousie, a miserably crowded Ashok Leyland, where I spent the entire trip squashed onto the stairs, that I met Vejay, a tiny, balding Tamil man who was a little bit tweaky and whose breath smelled like booze. His English was quite poor but he was enthralled with the fact that I came on the local bus, and said repeatedly, “We climb together!”
I was down, but there were issues that first required slight thought, and then apathetic discarding. The first was that I was told my many, many people to not start climbing before 2am or so, as it is very, very cold at the top, and waiting around for the sun to rise is less than comfortable. The second was that I wanted to stash my bag somewhere, as even though it’s small, it’s still about 12kg.
Through broken english and some interesting pantomimes, I concluded that he worked at one of the shops on the way, of which there are many. These shops sell tea, basic food and water and such, at incredibly inflated prices, as everything has to be hiked up. The hiking itself is done by local Tamils, who I truly hope charge by the step: the shops at the top are literally 95% of the climb, and thinking about making that climb with, say, a case of bottled water, or a 50lb propane tank, balanced on my head, makes me shudder.
We stopped for a tea and a cigarette or two, both good things to have before climbing a 2,500m mountain. Then, a few shots of green apple Arrack, which is what I was smelling on his breath on the bus. Tasty.
I was still somewhat confused as to what we were doing when we started up the hill at sundown… we kept on in broken english, and I think he was explaining that we’d go to his shop, eat, and then I could climb up the rest of the way, leaving my pack there. I didn’t want to pay for a guesthouse I wouldn’t sleep in, so I agreed and we went along, my whole pack on my back… I figured, hey, I can hang out at the base for seven hours, or I can hang out halfway for the same amount of time with this teetotaling, seemingly well-wishing local… I guess I’ll take the weirder option.
gateway to the climb, with Vejay posing as menacingly as he can muster
Sri Pada is interesting in that the government rents out those lots to the vendors, who all peddle basically the same goods: tea, water, roti, candy, incense, etc. We stopped at a few on the way up. Everyone knew him, which was a good sign: it was barely 8pm but for some reason here I was, following this half-drunk local up a mountain, about six hours earlier than I was expecting to. Surely there is logic in this somewhere, I thought.
At the second stop, I got to grill a shop owner about the circumstances of these tea shops: how the hell do you compete with a few hundred others selling the exact same wares? (barely — location is one thing but dumb luck is another). How do you deal with water and power? (again, barely — each shop pays a flat rate for [spring fed] water and a 240v hook-up, both of which fail rather often). How much does a stall cost? (not much – about 25,000 LKR, roughly $250/month, before power and water). Finally – I had to ask – how much do you pay the local Tamils who lug up all your goods for you?
Of course, he wouldn’t answer this one. Not much, I bet.
Anyway, we’re maybe 30% of the climb, and my pack is getting heavy. It’s not a huge pack by any standard, but after 2,000 vertical feet or so, it’s feeling heavier and heavier. We’re stopped at another tea stand, and I ask if I can trust the guy to drop my pack there.
“Hey man, I really want to drop this pack… can I leave it here?” (obviously I’ll keep all my crucial items with me)
“Hmmph? Yeah… he has bunks over there, I think I’ll take a nap there until my shift…”
“Wait… what? I thought we were going to your shop?”
“Yes, I’ll go later. It’s okay, you can leave your stuff here, I will sleep now and meet you at my shop later…”
No you won’t, I think. He’s smoking one of my last cigarettes and the arrack is gone. I realize I may have just made a terrible mistake following him here… pilgrimage, my ass, this guy is suddenly as shady as a mangrove. I chew on it a bit in my head…
At this point, I’ll note that not a single tourist is on the mountain. Not one. We’ve passed only locals, Sinhalese and Tamil, and the occasional barefoot monk. Of course: the tourists don’t start until 2am. I went for weird, and I got it. What next? I drank another tea.
“Look man, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but I’m going up… I’ll just take the pack, don’t worry about watching it for me…”
“No, no, it’s no problem! It’s safe here!”
“I am… so sure that’s true (this was said in the voice of Ray Gillette)… but still, I’m just gonna head up with it…”
“Okay, I’ll walk with you to my shop…”
I burst out laughing. Of course you will! I realize now that he’s a bit tipsy; hell, he’s probably been a bit tipsy all day. The Sinhalese are relative light-weights: drink a fifth with them, and they’re all smiles. Drink another, and they’re all slurs and stumbles. This is not at all a harsh generalization; they’re just… small… with big appetites.
“Nooooo, noooooo, you stay! You need your beauty rest! Gotta sleep off that arrack before the boss sees you…”
“I… am the boss.” Immediately, Rick Ross starts playing in my head. Not gonna argue with the boss, am I? I smile.
“Sure. Lets go.”
His logic, and words, and mannerisms, all confound me. I have no idea what he was on about with the sleep and all, and while there’s a corner of a thought in me that suspects that he has no shop and the whole bit is an elaborate rouse to part me from my bag, he just doesn’t seem smart (or sober) enough for such a task. I chew on the order of events, and decide the course…
As we keep walking, more and more locals are eclipsing the steps. The crowd varies from infants to elderly, and from all walks of life. And here I am, walking with someone I no longer trust and wishing I’d brought more arrack…
Eventually, we make it to his shop, which by this point I am mildly surprised to learn exists. On top of that, it is much bigger than almost every other we’ve passed, with a huge kitchen looking out over the steps, and lots of primitive benches built from split timber. The staff looks at me funny. I am officially the first tourist of the evening, and they’re surprised to see a white fellow here six or seven hours too early. I have a cup of tea and refuse when Vejay asks if I’d like any food. I refrain from asking any of the other employees if he is, in fact, the boss, somehow seeing that information as useless. One of the employees is eager to show me his wooden leg, and I’m grateful for any break in the awkward silence: it’s only 9:00pm, which is nearly nine hours to sunrise.
I’m sitting there, sipping tea and feeling foolish, when a large, twenty-something Sinhalese woman walks up and basically starts force feeding me cookies… she’s smiling this huge, bright smile, and I can tell she’s baked (or “made” – they didn’t quite seems baked) them herself. Her pride exudes from her eyes as I smile, chewing what is basically a lump of floury dough with brown sugar rolled on the outside… and then she gives me another. And another. And then some odd, oat filled bars. She’s one of those who genuinely enjoys watching other people chew. I indulge her.
A crowd is gathering to watch, which makes me exude more “mmmmmmm”s and “ahhhhhh”s, leaning towards facetious but carefully restrained. I smile and say “hari usai!” which basically means “good eating”, and after laughter and smiles, the crowd disperses. Vejay gives me an odd look, something like shame… he says nothing as he walks past with a bowl full of dough and starts rolling out roti.
The woman asks if I’d like to walk up with her and her family. I hesitate to respond, but looking at my other options, this one makes me smile, and I accept. I shoulder the pack and we stroll out.
The contrast of walking up a mountain with a teetotaling rotiwallah and walking up with a family of twelve is quite stark. The young woman speaks English quite well, and we chat, in between her wrangling kids, helping her parents, and feeding an infant. That’s what pilgrimage looks like for her, and she handles it with a deft stride. I never catch her name.
It’s about this point that I began just sort of floating along from family to family, a giant white orphan on the side of a mountain… everyone gives me something, food, water, bangles, conversation. It’s interesting to note that the locals seem to buy absolutely nothing on the mountain — everything is carried with them, entire mess kits for the whole family, kilos of curries and rices, everything. They occupy the shops to eat their own food, without comment.
The cold is starting to bite, and even coming from Nuwara Eliya, I’m chilly… many of those I walk with are in shorts and t-shirts, with nothing else to add later. I try asking at least a dozen locals over the course of the night what the plan is when they get to the top, all to confused looks or answers that are unintelligible. At our current rate, we will arrive right around 11pm or maybe a little earlier, leaving six hours or so to dawn. None of them seem to care, and most I ask have climbed up before… I give my curiosity a rest.
Eventually, I fall in with a group of teenage boys, most of them right around age 19 or so. They didn’t come with their families — no, they came with each other, twelve of them total, crammed into a van from Colombo, something like a camping trip. They are all, every one of them, full to the brim with piss and vinegar and hope and energy and smiles. After hearing my age, they are all shocked to learn I am not married — a shock that I witness every day here, but that is odd coming from a bunch of teenagers with their whole lives ahead of them…
The Marriage Thing: a heathen westerner’s perspective
A basic introduction from any local here involves these three questions, usually in this order:
1) Where are you from
2) What is your age
3) Are you married
and, if no to 3),
4) Why not?
Those first three are easy to answer, but number four can get tricky, as the cultural divide can be daunting to cross. Whatever you do, don’t say “I don’t believe in marriage”, as this will be met with the harshest of criticism and defense. I will not describe my own failures of description, or the senseless lies told in the interest of studying their responses, even though some of them were incredibly funny… needless to say, this is even a running joke among those traveling around here, and everybody has a story to tell about their own explanations and lies.
Later on, back in Kandy, an attractive, well-traveled Australian woman in her forties told me this one:
“The first time I came here, I told them I wasn’t married, and sometimes I tried to explain why… but then I decided to just lie about it. This made problems, though, because then the next question is ‘Where is he?’ and if I told them he was back in Australia, they’d say ‘But why? Doesn’t he love you?’. Okay, so now, I had a husband, and he was in Colombo… but then they’d ask if we had any kids, and when I told them we didn’t, they’d say ‘But why? Why do you not have children?’ Okay, so we have a daughter… but then it was ‘Why no son? Don’t you want someone to carry on your name?’ So it just sort of spiraled out of control, in this organized way… and suddenly, I had a husband, and two kids, a boy and a girl, and they’re all in Colombo, and he works as a writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, and I’m just here for the weekend before going back to him and my children….”
We were all in stitches laughing about this one, and we all had our stories to tell. Sometimes, it’s transparent: an older man who has two daughters is asking me if I’m married, and when I tell him I’m not, he invites me to dinner (I politely declined, even though the pictures he showed me of his daughters made me think twice). I can only assume this ‘angle’ changes with each person, and I’ll explain the kids on the mountain, and my own take on it: when an 18-year-old asks someone in his late twenties if he’s married, he’s not really asking about the marriage part: he’s asking if you’ve been gettin’ any. It’s the culture: if you’re not married to them, you’re not touching them, so if you’re in your late twenties and not married, what the hell is wrong with you?
back to the mountain
So we’re on our way up, me and this crew of teenagers, bellies full, and still not a tourist in sight. The kids are fun to joke around with, and they just really want to do one thing: smoke. They’ve smuggled in cigs and flavored cigars and some Rizlas, and the climb be damned, priority one is sparking up… and again, I can sympathize. My thoughts drifted back to Honduras, in 2002, my first time out of my own country. I was 17, and found it fitting to smoke a Cuban cigar every night or two. Since those nights on Roatan ten years ago, I smoke somewhere between zero and two cigars each year (directly proportionate to how many cigars I am offered by people who know something about cigars) and have never once craved one.
my posse's on Broadway...
The five young men I was climbing with turned into twelve near the top, where the steps become much steeper, much narrower and much more in disrepair, and we stopped for a proper session of cigars a few hundred steps from the summit. I felt like I was 17 again, passing around a chocolate cigar with a bunch of kids. All of them spoke at least limited English and a few were quite well versed, and when one asked if I smoked them back home, I couldn’t lie: “These things? We split these things in half and then throw away the tobacco, put something else in there instead…”
We summit. Hundreds, perhaps a thousand locals are already there, huddled together for warmth on the steps and grounds surrounding the small temple. Many have prepared and brought blankets and hats and long pants and such, but at least half are wearing whatever they stepped out of the van with, my homies included. Most start shivering immediately, and after putting on a little music, I realize I’m carrying four kilos or so of clothing that I’m not wearing.
The thought hits me like a brick, and I start clawing through the pack, passing out every article of clothing I have to this rag-tag bunch of teenagers, all shivering in their shorts, sandals and t-shirts. I’m wearing the only long-sleeve, jacket and pants that I have, but that doesn’t stop them from layering in the spare t-shirts, shorts and even the four pairs of socks I’m not currently wearing. One of them even took my trunks and tied them up around his ass, so as to cover his knees and tibiae, and the sight of them all standing there wearing my entire wardrobe was quite a laugh… it will be six and a half hours until the sun rises, and the temperature is still dropping.
We huddle up for warmth on the steps, thirteen of us trying to cover ourselves with two bed sheets, and keep chatting. It would be silly to say that we covered every topic under the moonlight, but we came pretty close to covering every topic that matters to a 19-year-old, things like girls and cars and music and tattoos and traveling. And still, not a tourist in sight, and still, every family with more than they needed coming over and sharing their food with us. It was a magical night there, watching the bright, red moon fall into the hills, and without a bit of sleep, we all eagerly awaited the big ball of fire rising in the east…
…And then the tourists showed up. They trickled in, slowly at first, mostly an older crowd, many of them in groups. My smiles were genuine but many of theirs seemed forced, as if they were expecting something else on the top of this hill. I stuck with my posse until the crowd was so dense that it was hard to stick together. It became very, very cold in those last hours, and on the South side of the mountain, just beneath the temple, locals were making small fires out of incense boxes and coconut oil and anything else that would burn, huddling around the meager flames for just a little bit of warmth to come into their fingers.
Just before the sunrise, I kicked off the sandals and walked up to the temple, which was already very, very crowded. In my wandering, I came across a huge group of tourists who had not removed their shoes beforehand, and sort of politely whispered to one, “you’re on the temple grounds now; you should remove your shoes…”
He looked at me incredulously. “Yes, but it is very cold,” he said in a thick German accent.
I was shocked. He wouldn’t take his shoes off because it was cold? Perhaps he was not aware that he was standing on one of the holiest places in the country… I smiled and said something like “you’re kidding, right? This is a TEMPLE. You are IN A TEMPLE RIGHT NOW.”
And then he turned around. He actually turned around and ignored me, continuing to chat with a large group of very well-outfitted, presumably German companions, all with $1k+ DSLR cameras around their necks. I was flabbergasted. I simply could not process it, so I kept walking, my toes freezing on the concrete.
I approached another tourist couple on the far side, and again, politely explained to them that they were on the temple grounds and that they should remove their shoes. The male replied, “Yes, we thought about that, but it is very cold up here, and we’d rather keep them on…”
“You thought about it, eh? And the conclusion you came to was that being comfortable was more important than being respectful?”
He looked at me like a child might look at his younger sibling when told to do something by them, a look that says “who the hell are you?” Then he turned away.
I considered the method I might use to tackle one of these louses to the ground, pry their shoes off and toss them over the side of the temple. Maybe I should just grab the camera and toss that? They’re European, so it’s probably insured anyway… should I pop the memory card out first, as a courtesy? No, that would show too much consideration… really, it would have to be the shoes. Yes, that would prove the point much more succinctly. They would have a nice long time on the barefoot walk down to think about why they no longer have their GoreTex North Face trainers… should I go for the tall one? I bet he’s a size 48 or 49, which I know from experience is impossible to find here… or maybe the chunky one with thick glasses… he’d put up the least resistance…
Dark thoughts on that hill waiting for the sun to come up. Why you gotta come hate on my magic, Germans? Are you that hopeless? You can’t have the respect of doing the one thing — the ONLY thing — that is asked of you on this pilgrimage? It’s a PILGRIMAGE, for chrissakes..
I sat there, trying to contain my rage, when an older Sinhalese gentleman in a funny looking ski mask walked up and smiled at me, a smile that had to be returned. He must have seen me fuming. “It’s okay” was all he said, and then he patted me on the shoulder. Then he walked away.
The sun rose. It came up strong and fast, illuminating the valleys around us and torching the clouds with orange furor… It was, in fact, completely beautiful. I didn’t take many pictures of it, as others did, and the older guy in expensive boots with a tri-pod and a bag full of lenses screwed up my best shot, but I sat there watching it, echoing the man’s words… it’s okay…
A ceremony proceeded which I will not attempt to describe here, ending with a prayer. At the start of this prayer, the Germans were still running around like clueless rabbits, snapping photos of monks and citizens in their pilgrimage, not having the faintest clue of what they were taking pictures of. I was sat lotus near the SE corner of the temple, which was at this point packed wall-to-wall with others sitting lotus on all sides. The tourists dispersed and departed, apparently not interested in this particular part of the pilgrimage (no shit). Yes, they had gotten their high-def pictures of monks and barefoot citizens clasping their hands, and now could go back to their respective homelands, proud of having gotten such great cultural understanding.
I stuck around. The prayers were led by loudspeaker, and followed by the crowds around me. I don’t know quite what those prayers held in them, but I listened intently, and in my head, they were saying things like,
take care of those around you and be taken care of… love others and be loved… be respectful and be respected… feed and be fed… quench and be quenched… clothe and be clothed… smile and be smiled to…
and take your goddamn shoes off when you enter a temple…
up the frickin’ mountain, down the frickin’ mountain
The walk down was amazing. I had lost my homies (perhaps they didn’t stick around for the prayer) and so all of my clothes were missing, but I was not particularly concerned about this fact at all. Some odd, superficial darkness had been lifted, and the sun shined bright above us, and with a mostly empty pack and the clothes on my back, I started walking down. I returned every smile, and spoke to everyone who spoke to me. I bet if you haul, you can walk down the whole thing in under an hour, but for me it took three and a half, and that was just fine — all of the conversations were simple and some of them were brief, but all of them were genuine, and I felt like a million bucks.
I stumbled upon the man in the ski-mask from earlier, walking down with his wife and another friend. Without the mask I could see he was around 60 or so, his wife about the same, and she struggled with the steps — oh, sure, walking down 5,200 steps is easy, but doing it after you’ve just walked up them is much harder, as your hamstrings and quads are a bit fried. I walked slowly with them and we chatted about life and the start of summer and a few other topics. At one point they asked where I was going and I said, blankly, ‘North’, as my Indian visa would not be ready for another four days, and I had time to kill. Then he offered me a ride to Kandy, where he and his wife and friends were heading (they had chartered a van) — no small offer, as getting there my way (read: the cheap way) entails three different local buses, all of them packed to the roof, and that was just the start of my journey North (Kandy is a transport hub, and getting from anywhere in the hills to the north requires going there first). We parted ways so they could rest and agreed to meet at the huge standing Buddha just south of the river, at the foot of the mountain.
It was about halfway down that I considered the implications of losing nearly every article of clothing I had, and that it would be at least a minor set-back, though not a great loss by any means, as most of my clothes are falling apart anyway. During this thought, I saw a man with one leg and a crutch, walking uphill and singing, with a bowl in his free hand. I picked a fifty rupee note out of my pocket and dropped it in, and at the same moment realized I knew this man — he was the one with the wooden leg at Vejay’s shop. “Wait… I know you…” he smiled and put his finger to his pursed lips, and I picked the fifty out of the bowl. “Here, let me get you a tea with that…”
Of course, we were just barely upstairs of Vejay’s place. I walked in and ordered myself a tea with the fifty I had just re-appropriated, then went looking for the man’s leg. I found it leaning against the wall in the back room. I considered grabbing it and walking it up to him, spoiling his rouse, but then considered how hard it must be to walk up those 3,000 or so steps every day to get to work with a wooden leg. I picked it up. It was much, much heavier than I expected, a rather primitive prosthetic. I stood there for a second and then mentally shrugged.
Vejay was still working, cleaning the kitchen and wrapping up roti. He gave me a cigarette, perhaps a peace offering, and said nothing. It was now clear to me that this man would not have taken anything from my bag — he works on the damn mountain, for starters, and while it would have been easy to find him, the key word here is ‘works’. He’s a drunk with poor English, not so unlike me, and after I thanked him for the tea, I turned to pay, and he snuck a few wrapped up roti into my bag.
I found most of my clothing in a neat, folded pile near the gateway to the mountain. Perhaps the crew had waited for me, and in my conversations and dallying, had grown weary of the wait. A few t-shirts were missing, and maybe a pair of socks or two, but I didn’t care — there are plenty of shirts and socks in the world, after all, and after everything I had been given that night, it seemed, quite literally, the least I could offer…
I cried when they would not take off their shoes, until I met a man who pretended to... oh, nevermind