I’ve had lots of great experiences but limited internet so this is going to be a long one! (But there are also lots of pictures!)
I arrived at Colombo airport in Sri Lanka mid-morning on Sunday. I knew I would need cash for pretty much everything so I tried to use about three different ATMs, all of which denied me money and displayed messages saying that my card was ineligible or reported lost.stolen. After connecting with my Green Lion volunteer group, I used the free airport wifi to skype my bank, but was cut off mid-call due to the shoddy internet signal. (I actually ended up having to borrow money from a new friend until I could sort things out with my bank four days later. But I was thankful this was the worst I had to deal with because another girl was without her entire suitcase for several days due to the fault of the airline, so a lot of us pitched in toiletries and clothes for her to borrow until it arrived after several days. Travelers are the best!)
Five of us and our luggage were piled into a van for the three hour journey to Kandy in the mountains. This ride started out a bit terrifying because although there are only two lanes painted on the road, there can be up to 5 or 6 lanes of busses, trucks, cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Our driver was swerving all over the road and honking erratically, not unlike everyone else. After the first dozen or so near-misses, we relaxed and listened to Abba’s greatest hits. Which was blaring out of the speakers for nearly the entire trip.
We surprisingly arrived all in one piece and after removing our shoes at the door of course, were sent to our respective rooms. I was the last of six to arrive in my room, which was tucked away in the corner of the third floor.
I ended up really disliking my room, mostly because it was too small for the six bunks (three sets of two) that occupied it. Three German girls had been there for several weeks and their stuff was everywhere. Then what little space was left was taken by and English girl and Dutch girl who arrived just a bit earlier than me. I had to lean my rucksack against someone else’s bed frame and there was literally no more room on the floor so I had to keep my backpack my top bunk with me, which occupied a significant portion of my already tiny sleeping space. The mattresses were ultra thin and I could always feel the metal bars of the bunk frame beneath it. The pillow felt like I was sleeping on a soggy sack of flour and we were each given two thin, tattered bed sheets which never stayed tucked in. I always slept on top of them both because it was still too warm at night for any kind of coverings.
My bed was against the wall and under the single oscillating fan which blew directly over my bed so I didn’t really benefit from it’s cooling effect. Of course there was no air conditioning so we often kept the window open at night, which consequently let in mosquitos and the stench of cigarette smoke. The bathroom was tiny and I was grateful for a flushing toilet, but the space was wide open so whenever anyone took a shower, everything inside got wet. We did have hot water sometimes, but I actually crave cold showers after accumulating a layer of dust and sweat everyday. I saw several other rooms with ceiling fans and a bit more space so I know every room wasn’t exactly like mind. There were only two outlets so it was a battle to get your phone charged. I was pretty proud of how I was able to Macgyer my converter to be able to power the fan, my phone and at least one other device. We were also allotted two hours of slowish internet per night, which I really appreciate considered there is no internet provided at my new house in Ambalangoda. But, it was tolerable for a week, and the food and the new friends I’ve met helped to make up for it.
Honestly, before I arrived, the only two things I knew about Sri Lanka were that it’s an island located off the southeast corner of India and it’s where M.I.A. was born. Now I know the majority of the people are Buddhist (there are statues and temples everywhere) and there was a civil war in the north between the Singhalese and the Tamil Tigers that really only ended recently in 2009. In general, the men tend to be skinny and the women tend to be thicker and curvier. They wear a mix of traditional dress and western-style attire, with traditional being shirts and long sarongs for the men, midriff-baring saris for the women and sandals or flip flops for both. Everyone’s been pretty friendly so far and the kids get especially excited and always shout “Hello! Hello!” when they see foreigners. There are also stray dogs and garbage all over the streets.
Our cultural orientation started on Monday with some history and language lessons where we were taught a few phrases in Singhalese. Ayu Bowan is a common greeting and means I wish you a long life. You can also use this as a farewell phrase (kinda like Aloha means hello and goodbye.) We also learned some basic conversation starters: Mage Nama Miranda. Mage Rate United States, and pleasantries: Karunakarala means please and Isthuthi means thank you. The written Singhalese language is very lovely-looking but I can’t even begin to read a word of it.
We rode a public bus around Kandy and ended up thoroughly enjoying a showcase of traditional Sri Lankan dance, costumes and performances. It opened with the blowing of the conch shell and drumming, which is a traditional welcome. This was followed by the Pooja dance, the Panteru Natum, the Cobra dance, the Mask dance and few others. The most impressive for me personally was the duo of plate spinners who balanced like 7 ceramic discs each and then the two guys at the end who ate fire and walked across hot coals that were then set on fire and walked across again.
Tuesday was very touristy but informative. We visited a local Ayervedic (natural healing) spice garden where they grew and processed medicinal plants like aloe vera, cinnamon and ginger followed by a visit to the Kadugannawa Tea Factory Centre Garden where we had a tour and enjoyed a cup of Ceylon tea. Fun Fact: Sri Lanka is the second largest exporter of tea after India. Our last stop was Premadasa Gems & Jewelry where we watched a short video about traditional mining in Sri Lanka and then they attempted to sell us all kinds of shiny, sparkly things. This was pretty much the pattern all day: give the tourists a quick tour then encourage them to buy a bunch of stuff. Fun Fact: There are 28 different gems and precious stones found in Sri Lanka; almost everything except diamonds, rubies and emeralds.
Wednesday we split into groups and had traditional cooking lessons in the homes of some very talented local ladies. Cooking is huge here, and women can typically spend half of each day just cooking. I got to assist in the kitchen and use a coconut grinder to help make our pumpkin curry, banana flower “slaw”, fried papadils (which ended up kind of like puffy potato chips) and rice. We even ate the traditional way with our right hands, sans utensils. Everything was so fresh and flavorful. This was my favorite meal in Kandy by far.
Later that day, we visited a Buddhist temple and chatted with a nun with a shaved head and everything who was originally from England but had come to this temple after converting in Burma. She had an open dialogue with us about Buddhism, answered several questions and misconceptions and then led us in a short meditation. That was really interesting because she had a unique perspective of being able to compare it to the traditional Western lifestyle instead of being born into it, as they are here. Some monks get recruited really young at like 7 or 8 years old. I’ve seen some this young in town and at other temples in the area.
Thursday we visited the incredibly crowded Temple of the Tooth Relic, which was packed with tourists and devotees alike. Our guides encouraged us to buy flowers for offerings at one of the several carts outside the temple and it only cost 100 rupees (about 75¢ USD) so we obliged. It was more like a palace than a temple with ornate murals and sculptures everywhere. There was a horn player and two drummers at the front and a huge line that wrapped around the inside of the temple to actually see the tooth (of Buddha) so instead we just walked past the outside of the relic room. There were people everywhere offering prayers and fruit and flowers and tourists taking pictures and even groups of children on field trips in their adorable white uniforms and red ribbons.
After that, we took tuk-tuks, which is kind of like a cross between and motorcycle and a golf cart, up the hill to a wood shop and a batik shop. Again, they gave a quick lecture and then escorted us to their ginormous gift shops in hopes of us buying souvenirs. I finally gave in at the Batik shop and bought a small print of several birds roosting on branches called The Tree of Life.
It was a pretty short day so a couple other girls and I stayed in town to shop at the local markets. It can be overwhelming if you’re not used to crowded places with everyone promising you the best deal. “Special price for you. Student price. Volunteer price.” I ended up with an awesome pair of printed elephant pants and a matching purple t-shirt that were comfortable enough for traveling and conservative enough for temple visits.
Friday was our last official orientation day and we started it with a public bus trip and a steep hike to the Bahirawakanda Temple which housed a giant Buddha statue that overlooked all of Kandy. We took tons of pictures of the statue and the great view of the city below before having tea and being blessed by a young monk who tied white string around each of our right wrists. Apparently you are supposed to make a wish when you receive the string and then when the makeshift bracelet falls off, your wish is supposed to come true.
We then went back down to the city and visited a large Hindu temple where people were praying and offering fruit platters. Once the offering has been blessed, you get a little dot on your forehead and you’re supposed to eat the fruit. I’ve visited several Hindu temples now and they’re always so bright and colorful with intricate carvings. This one even had a bunch of flashing neon images of gods and goddesses that reminded me a bit of a casino. At lunchtime, we headed to Balaji Dosai pure vegetarian restaurant where we all enjoyed a roti-like dish with a couple different curries on the side. Either the spice was toned down for us or I’m finally starting to increase my tolerance!
That night, a group of about 20 of us packed up and loaded into three vans around 11 PM for a three hour drive to Adam’s Peak (or Sri Pada). The plan was to arrive around 2 AM and then hike to the top in time for sunrise. We figured we’d be able to get some rest on the way there - but boy were we wrong. The driver of my van at least was swerving around the hairpin turns of the mountain road like a maniac and blaring whiny-sounding Sri Lankan music. There were no seat belts and no handles or anything to hold onto inside so we all just kind of tumbled over the top of one another each time we took a hard turn. One girl in the back threw up a few times and another had her head out of the window on the verge of puking, herself. When we finally arrived, it was dark so we all got out our flashlights and started up the dirt and stone-staired trail. It started raining so I put my raincoat on over my backpack and opened my umbrella. A few stray dogs followed us, which was ok and even a bit reassuring until a couple of them started growling and snapping at each other.
The rain only got worse and our one large group scattered into several smaller groups. I was struggling with the altitude since I’m used to living at sea level. I also started feeling a slight pain in my knee but I was determined to reach the top. The rain only got worse and flooded the trail. It got colder the higher we climbed. And the nonstop precipitation caused the steeper stone steps towards the top to turn into a gushing waterfall. I could feel my pants stuck to my legs and my feet sloshing around in the water inside my hiking boots. It literally felt like torture in the cold, wet darkness. I pressed on as much as I could until the pain in my knee was unbearable. This happened less than half a kilometer from the top, according to a couple who had already reached the peak and was on their way back down. A friend and I stopped at a police station on the way back down to see if they had any first aid supplies and happened to run into a different group of trekkers. One of them was a girl in her mid-twenties who happened to be training as a humanitarian aid worker and immediately wrapped up my knee and gave me some ibuprofen. The Sri Lankan police were very kind and offered us all hot tea, which was the motivation I needed to start hobbling back down the mountain. The sun came up at some point during the descent but the rain still never fully stopped. I was lucky I only found one leech as most other people were attacked several times.
Back at the base, the vans and about half of the group were already waiting. Once there were enough people to fill up the first van, it took off and I was the only one left waiting for the rest of the group, who I assumed had reached the top. They returned pretty disappointed because although they went as far as they could, the actual peak was gated and locked since it was off season and they couldn’t even see the sunrise due to all the rain and mist. The ride back was even more miserable because we were all soaking wet and we had to sit idly for over an hour due to a downed powerline in the road. I really wish someone had given us a weather forecast and informed us it was off season before we left, but now I have a story to tell about that hike from hell I did that one time in Sri Lanka.