Solo Travel & Stuffocation

Packing light - or at least attempting to - has been somewhat of a challenge for me. The weight of my pack(s) decreases with each trip, but I still have too much stuff. I mean, did I come here for new and exciting experiences or to lug a bunch of stuff around like a boat anchor? 

Stuff in Nepal

Stuff in Nepal

I also had some insight into my own hypocrisy. I want to live and travel minimalist, yet I still fall into the trap of buying souvenirs for myself and for others. At least half a dozen times during this trip so far. The stuff is really hard to resist. At first glance it's shiny or colorful or exotic or "such a bargain." But in reality you just end up with cheap junk. I've been to many markets in many different countries and it's all the same: local handicrafts that will end up sitting on a shelf and collecting dust, cotton elephant pants and t-shirts that don't last, jewelry that just gets added to an overwhelming pile and ultimately ends up getting sold at garage sales, brand name counterfeits and knock-offs, and the list goes on. Not to mention the vendors can be incredibly aggressive or persuasive and it's easy to get guilted into buying things you don't even want in the first place. 

Stuff in Sri Lanka

Stuff in Sri Lanka

With nothing but the best intentions, you attach the amazing experiences that you saw, heard, touched, smelled and tasted to the things you buy. So you attach feelings of fondness to these inanimate 'gifts.' But the recipient did not experience these things so she/he will appreciate the sentiment but the thing will probably get used once or twice then disappear into the darkest depths of the closet. Or the thing may not get used or appreciated at all. 

Stuff in India

Stuff in India

For Christmas last year, I gave my mom a silk scarf from Cambodia and a jade bracelet from Vietnam and I have yet to see her wear either gift. I knew she already had piles of jewelry and a collection of scarves before I purchased these things but I felt obligated not to come home empty-handed, especially around the holidays. I'm not upset and it's nothing personal against my mom - it's human nature to want more than you need and to not use all that you have, at least in the West. With regards to the holidays, I'm sure my mom appreciated my gifts of time and effort like cooking, chauffeuring, conversing, teaching yoga and even a foot rub or two more than anything tangible that was under the tree. 

Stuff in Singapore

Stuff in Singapore

Not to mention unplanned souvenirs and gifts can easily blow your travel budget. If you're on a tight budget, you're gonna buy cheap stuff that is mass produced so that a thousand other tourists can buy it too. If you have a bit more money and want to buy some exotic furniture or decor for your home, the item itself may seem like a steal but the shipping costs and risk of damage during transit quickly add up. 

So here's my solution. It's unrealistic and setting myself up for failure to think that I can go the rest of this trip without buying anything else. So after Nepal, I am limiting myself to one item per country. Quality over quantity, one of my core values. Each thing also has to be useful and lightweight. And I have to like it, love it, can't live without it. No buying it even if I'm on the fence or have an inkling of doubt. 

And no more junk for family and friends either. There are several reasons why I've determined postcards are vastly superior souvenirs.
1) Each is handwritten and personalized for its intended recipient.
2) It's a nice, somewhat nostalgic surprise that stands out among the monotony of junk mail, catalogs and local advertising.
3) It's cost effective - most often less than one US dollar for the card and postage.
4) If you look hard enough, you can find unique cards that still support local artisans/photographers.
5) If the recipient doesn't feel the need to keep it, it can be recycled.
6) They are sent right away and don't weigh you down, taking up precious space in your backpack.
7) The personal connection of seeing a picture and hearing how much you loved traveling to a place is more likely to inspire someone else to travel there too instead of a generic trinket. 

Awesome Postcards 

Awesome Postcards 

I'm leaving some stuff behind in Nepal but I'm still stuck lugging around a bunch more junk from home that I've since decided I can live and travel without.

This lesson I've learned from long-term, solo travel is so applicable to the rest of life too:

You can do more when you have less stuff weighing you down. 

Body & Mind : My Last Week in Sri Lanka

So I'm still at the same beach house in Ambalangoda but this last week is all about relaxation and introspection. Two other girls are participating in this week's activities as well; one from Austria and one from Germany. The only things officially on the agenda are a daily morning massage, a short yoga class in the afternoon and then maybe meditation on Friday with a monk at a local temple. I supplemented the mind part on my own by devouring several books during my abundant free time. (I also still helped out with the turtles, too.) 

Full/Blue Moon

Full/Blue Moon

BODY // MASSAGE

My morning ayervedic massages were performed by a small, smiley Sri Lankan lady name Udena. First there is the topless head, scalp and shoulder massage. (Beth, you would slip into a blissful coma and possibly die of complete, tactile nirvana.) I sit in a chair and she pours some herbal, ayervedic oil on my head then works it into my hair and scalp with a sequence of scratches and strokes. Then she braids my oily and slightly thicker hair. For some reason, I find head/scalp massage the most relaxing - it affects the entire rest of my body. After that, I lay down on the padded table for the foot massage. It's very thorough and relaxing with a bit of reflexology-ish pressure point stimulation. (Dad, you would fall asleep and instantly have dreams of walking weightlessly on cotton candy clouds.)

The first time, I thought she was only going to do my head and feet, but she transitioned on to rub down all the parts in between. Arms, hands, thighs, legs and then stomach and chest. It was a bit awkward for me because I've never had a boob-and-tummy massage before but its not bad. Then I flip over and she does the back of my arms & legs, my glutes and finally my back. My muscles are temporarily the consistency of banana pudding and it takes all of my willpower to convince my coarse motor skills to start functioning again. 

At this point I'm covered head to toe in ayervedic massage oil. I looked at the bottle but it's all in Singhale so I can't read a word of it. I asked Udena what was in it and she said simply "herbs." So my last resort was to try to identify it by smell, which is my third failed attempt at deciphering what the oil is made from or what's in it. I can say it smells rich, savory, herb-y and earthy, almost like a mossy forest floor after the rain mixed with wood, mushrooms and maybe some nuts. It honestly smells and feels like I'm being tenderized and marinated in preparation for a large Thanksgiving-style feast. It's not a bad smell but I don't love it either. 

If I could, I would fold her up and put her in my pocket so I can continue to experience her magical massage powers throughout my travels and share them with others. But, I just don't think the rest of the world is ready for the massage equivalent of self-actualization. 

MIND // BOOK CLUB

Walden | Henry David Thoreau, 1854

I finally finished Walden after starting it months ago. This is because 1) I read it very sporadically, and only during my travels, 2) its 373 pages of tiny type and 3) I frequently had to make note of and look up definitions to tons of antiquated and/or SAT-level vocabulary words. 

Basically, it's his adventure in self-reliance and self-reflection while living at a house he built on Walden Pond. There's a ton of satire, great poetic descriptions and narration, philosophy, advice, observations and even some rather prophetic predictions. I'll read it again or possible several more times and more quickly now that I have several words defined in the margins. 

Paper Towns | John Green, 2008

 A roommate of mine left this book so I picked it up and decided to give it a try. I finished it in under 48 hours, not because I found it particularly enthralling but because it's an easy read and I have a lot of free time. 

I was expecting it to be your typical vapid YA novel describing the same old tired high school stereotypes but I was surprised to find I could actually relate to it. Girl is fed up with conventional life (in Florida of all places) and decides to leave everything behind in search of something more substantial. 

A good part of the plot is built around poetry by Walt Whitman: Song of Myself and Leaves of Grass. I coincidentally just finished reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Both men were writers and part of the Transcendentalist movement in America during the nineteenth century. So, a lot of the underlying philosophy overlaps between those two books, despite them being written over 150 years apart. 

I also like the message of trying to see people for who they really are, not what you expect them to be. The irony is, in high school when I would have been the ideal target for this book, I was definitely more of a Q but now several years later, I've definitely transitioned to being more of a Margo. 

TRAVEL TIP #3: BOARDING PASSES MAKE GREAT BOOKMARKS!

The Fault in our Stars | John Green, 2012

There was a small, makeshift library of left-behind books in the corner of the common area. Since I had just finished Paper Towns, a friend suggested I read another book by John Greene called The Fault in our Stars. It's about a couple of star-crossed teenagers with various forms and stages of cancer. Kind of a modern, more maladies version of Romeo and Juiet, sans suicide.

It's a great insight into what it feels like to have a terminal illness and makes you appreciate your own health for sure. I wasn't a fan of the ending, but I think it's referencing the inceptional, fictional book-within-a-book An Imperial Affliction which just ends leaving several questions unanswered. I plan on watching the movie at some point next week in Malaysia when I have more reliable internet. 

I Wonder Why | Thubten Chodron, 1999

Curious to learn more about Buddhism and meditation in anticipation of visiting the temple later that week, I read I Wonder Why, a free publication that I picked up earlier at a temple in Singapore. It concisely and simply answers the questions asked most often about these aforementioned topics. It was written by a Californian turned Buddhist nun who started meditation and visited Nepal in 1975 and was fully ordained in 1986 in Taiwan. Very interesting and makes it easier to comprehend some of the more complex topics, especially since she has the Western perspective and wasn't just born into the culture. 

BODY // YOGA

After the peak heat and humidity of the day had waned slightly, our Yoga teacher Sasantha would arrive around 5 PM via motorbike. He wore white Kundalini-style yoga clothes was trained in and teaches Hatha style.

Along with Om chanting, he would open and close our practice with Ayubowen (Wishing you a long life; Singhale) instead of Namaste. I tried to go in with an open mind, but I felt like this class was way too basic, maybe on par for toddlers or geriatric clients. There were a handful of poses that I recognized but there was also a lot of filler like glorified stretching of feet, hands and fingers and laying down in savasana for several minutes in the middle of the practice, which I have never done before, and really felt like it interrupted the whole flow. But he did mix in a noticeable amount of meditation, which I liked. 

The worst part was the insects. I put on citronella oil but the mosquitos and flies still buzzed around us. I can't think of a worse hell than trying to meditate amongst mosquitos. I'm still grateful for his time and effort and was a nice, relaxing, not-too-sweaty way to end the day. 

I still continued to do my own Vinyasa practice almost every morning alone in the common area of the beach house. Last week, a few German girls took notice and asked if I could teach them. I ended up teaching two short classes (with simple moves that I was confident I could describe and direct) on two different mornings with up to four girls attending each class. 

MIND // TRIP TO THE TEMPLE

On Friday afternoon, I and the two other girls participating in B&MW piled into a tuk tuk to make the journey to the nearby Shailathalaramaya Temple in Karandeniya, built on a hillside about two centuries ago. It's claim to fame is a 35 meter long reclining Buddha statue, the longest of its kind in Southeast Asia.

The temple was particularly packed with people due to it being a holiday related to the full moon called Uposatha Observance Day or Poya Day. (This would explain why both the Post Office and our favorite Ice Cream place were closed on Friday.) So, we were lucky to get an hour, or any time at all really, with a monk there named Somissara. He was an amiable, 24-year old monk that just radiated happiness. The only space left for our meditation was in their narrow little alms room, where lay persons brought all kinds of food offerings for the monks. 

He had great English and gave us his life story in a nutshell, including coming to live at the temple at age 7, how he started meditation and his more recent travels across Europe to teach meditation. He recommended starting with Metta (or Loving Kindness) meditation. The goal of this practice is to cultivate a strong wish for the happiness of all other people and animals. We were instructed to close our eyes for 10 minutes and repeat the mantra I wish for all to be well and happy. I edited this a bit to I wish for _______ to be healthy and happy and made it into a med-lib™ (meditation + mad-lib, get it?!), in which I would fill in the following blank with things like: my parents, my sister, my friends, all beings, etc. (Is it coincidence that when I grabbed my phone to take pictures of the temple directly after the meditation, I noticed a rather happy WhatsApp message from my mom?) 

The time went by pretty quickly and even though my eyes were closed, the darkness faintly seemed like I was moving backwards through a tunnel, passing under sporadic overhead lights. However, I couldn't hold the traditional cross-legged position for the entire time. One of my legs started to go numb so I shifted a few times. I raised this concern to Somissara afterwards, and he said it's normal and totally acceptable to shift your physical position when meditating.

Then he gave us a brief tour of the statue, the temple and the grounds. I really enjoyed and appreciated the time he spent with us and approached to shake his hand, but just as quickly recoiled because I suddenly remembered that we're not supposed to touch or take pictures of the monks out of respect for their holiness. 

Reminds me of my grandma's quilted creations

Reminds me of my grandma's quilted creations

The Moonstone Mine and My Shiny Souvenir

Unrelated to Body & Mind week, my last excursion was to a Moonstone Mine in Meetiyayoda. It was a typical tour-then-try-to-sell-something experience, but while white moonstones are found all over the world, blue moonstones are so rare that they (supposedly) are only found in this single village in Sri Lanka.

Traditionally, the moonstone is known as the Traveler's Stone and is supposed to be especially protective when one travels by night or upon the water when the moon is shining. The blue, or cat's eye, variety is believed to promote clarity, focus, awareness and balances energy. 

Upon hearing this, I decided I needed one immediately so even though I'm not typically a "ring person," I purchased a sterling silver ring set with a small blue moonstone for 10,000 rupee ($75 USD). I'm sure I probably overpaid a bit but it came with a certificate of authenticity and I'm directly supporting the Sri Lankan economy. 

Sifting for stones

Sifting for stones

My blue moonstone

My blue moonstone

The Cat Savior & Spectacular Sunsets

My last and completely unanticipated experience that I need to mention happened Friday night when a group of us were walking towards town for ice cream after dinner at the beach house. We are regularly escorted by Milo and some other street dogs, as we were on this trip, but they suddenly and uncharacteristically broke into a full sprint. I saw why as a small cat scrambled up a tree limb. The cat fell and in what seemed like a nanosecond, it was then in Milo's mouth, being shaken violently. 

What happened next was kind of a blur. I didn't really think - I just reacted and kicked the dog, not hard enough to really hurt it, just enough to startle her. She dropped the cat and I reflexively tried to grab the cat and move it away from the dog but instead felt claws puncturing my flesh. I flinched and spun around to see the cat safely behind me. I stood between Milo and the cat, yelling at Milo to go away, until the cat disappeared to safety. Thankfully the other dogs were gone and Milo eventually retreated as well. (I'm choosing to believe that the cat is totally fine now and eternally grateful for me saving it's life.) 

Only then did I stop to evaluate the damage done to my finger. I had a long, jagged scratch almost the entire length of the inside of my right ring finger - the one with my new moonstone ring on it - that was trickling blood and I was super thankful for another girl in my group that had a first aid kit with her and handed me an alcohol wipe and a band aid. I used them immediately then cleaned the wound more thoroughly and applied Neosporin when I got back to the house. 

Last but not least, I need to share pictures of some spectacular sunsets we got to admire this week! 

Bentota and/or Aluthgama, Sri Lanka

Since we only work in the morning on Fridays, three other girls and I decided to spend the afternoon in another town called Bentota. We piled into a tuk tuk and headed north. We weren’t 100% sure where the town was or what it looked like but our driver dropped us off on the side of the road between the beach and some buildings a few kilometers after we passed a sign that said Bentota on it. Some locals directed us west toward the ‘city center’ so we walked in that direction, and soon realized we were being followed. An older gentleman in a sarong, button down shirt and flip-flops offered to take us to the temple, which he said was just down the road. 

We were very cautious and hesitant. I thought about it as we walked and decided he was either going to murder us in the woods, or actually take us to the temple and ask for a tip afterwards. We gambled on the latter, and after walking about 30 minutes through the jungle, we did, indeed arrive at a temple, which may or may not be the Galapatha Raja Maha Vihare Buddhist temple. (I couldn’t find anything identifying it in English at the site so I Googled it later.) I could tell the structure was very old but the interior was immaculately maintained and boasted beautiful tile, several colorful murals from floor to ceiling and a ginormous Sleeping Buddha statue with intricately patterned & painted feet. Of course at the end of our tour, we were asked to leave a donation for the temple so we each put 100 rupees through the slot in the wooden box that is intended for that purpose. 

Jungle Temple Entrance

Jungle Temple Entrance

Inside the Temple

Inside the Temple

After that, our guide (who never actually shared his name) led us to the lagoon, where we boarded a traditional flat canoe-type boat which he and one other man rowed for us with long, thin, wooden paddles. We asked the cost up front and he quoted us $1,000 rupees each (about $7.50 USD) which seemed a little steep, but we were kind of a captive audience because we didn’t know how else to get to the city. It ended up being a pretty nice ride that lasted close to an hour. We paddled around mangroves and along the shore of the lagoon, where I noticed the nicest houses I’ve seen yet in Sri Lanka. Our guide told us that many Europeans live here, so that explains the more lavish residences. We saw some snakes and some monitor lizards along the way before being dropped off at a vacant marketplace, which comes alive on Mondays only. 

Simple boats

Simple boats

We paid for the lagoon cruise and walked into what we assumed to be the city center since the street was lined with shops and the streets were full of people and various vehicles. This is where we and our guide parted ways, after he asked for a tip as I had expected. We gave him close to $1,000 rupees total, confident that he also got a cut of fee for the ‘cruise’ for which he had recruited us. He thanked us and claimed to have three children, for which he was going buy for for with said compensation. Who knows if this was true or not, but even though we got a bit taken advantage of as somewhat naive tourists, I think both parties benefitted from the "impromptour." We got see some sights that we had no idea were there and he made some money. Plus, it was super sustainable since we walked the whole time and the boat was people-powered. 

Row, row, row your boat

Row, row, row your boat

We were the only tourists around so everyone was hollering at us to come into their shops. We browsed a few before starting a new mission to find food. Another, younger local that looked to be around our age approached us and promised to take us to the best restaurant in town. We figured ‘what the heck’ and made sure to check the menu before deciding to actually eat at the restaurant, which had a pretty nice view overlooking the river. One girl has seafood and the rest of us reveled in the simple yet satisfying familiarity of our sandwiches and fries. 

The closest thing to a sunset I've been able to capture because clouds!!! 

The closest thing to a sunset I've been able to capture because clouds!!! 

We decided to save some money and take a train back to the beach house but had some trouble finding the station. It was getting dark and we gave up on hoofing it finally just found a tuk tuk to take us to the station for about 100 rupee. Turns out, we had missed our turn and walked too far. The train ticket was only $50 rupees each and I am very impressed with their thick, letterpress-style tickets! We were a bit confused, though, because we were at the Aluthgama station, when we were supposed to be in Bentota. When the train finally arrived about half an hour later, the first station we passed was Bentota, so we hypothesized that our driver had intentionally driven us too far in order to benefit his buddy that took us on our tour - but we can’t confirm this theory. 

Letterpress-ish train ticket 

Letterpress-ish train ticket 

We got back to the house in time for dinner then went out for ice cream downtown before calling it a night. 

Eco Update: Sri Lanka

The most common, and most fun, method of transportation around here is the auto rickshaw, also called a tuk tuk or a three wheeler. It’s kind of a hybrid between a golf cart and a motorcycle and transports a driver and up to three passengers. I’ve had several tuk tuk rides since arriving in Sri Lanka so I was curious to find out how efficient and eco-friendly they are (or aren’t.) 

Since they are so much smaller than standard vehicles, they get much better gas mileage; typically 35 km/liter (or 82 mpg) of petrol and their CO2 emissions are about a third less. Older models have two stroke engines, which cause a lot of particulate (soot) pollution. Newer models with four stroke engines more thoroughly burn the fuel and are more efficient. The Sri Lankan government actually banned two-stroke engines in 2007 to reduce air pollution so most of the tuk tuks here should be four stroke, but I’m sure the old ones still slip through the cracks. (Source)

So overall, I can confirm are much more efficient and also cost much less than traditional taxis. And did I mention, they’re just so much fun to zip around in? They effortlessly swerve right around busses, bikes, pedestrians, cows and whatever else happens to be on the road. 

Living in the beach house sans air con, hot water and basic appliances also saves a lot of energy. They also cook in bulk for the house and the food seems to be pretty local. Lots of rice and noodles and pineapple. Sri Lanka has the best pineapple I’ve ever tasted by the way; the perfect mix of tangy and sweet. I also avoid buying a bunch of plastic bottles and just keep refilling the same one with the filtered water that is provided for us. 

However, there is no recycling anywhere in the country. I seriously cringe and possibly even twitch every time I have to scrape food scraps onto plastic bottles in the bin because I am such a serial recycler at home. 

Skeptical turtle is skeptical 

Skeptical turtle is skeptical 

The turtle compounds are 100% natural and sustainable as far as I can tell because all we use is sea water, sand and coconut husks to clean the turtles and the same plus a few tools to clean the tanks. I confirmed with our coordinator, Isuru, that the fish we feed the turtles is caught by local Sri Lankan fisherman. (I even get to feed some leftover fish to a smart, little kitty that I named Latte since she has milk and coffee colored fur.) The only environmental concern I can discern is the paint we use to add to the hodgepodge murals on the walls. 

Latte is ready for some leftovers!

Latte is ready for some leftovers!

The garbage that accumulates on the surrounding beaches does the most immediate damage, so I bought some garbage bags in town and initiated a clean up effort. In around an hour, we filled five bags, mostly with plastic bottles, orphaned flip flops and pieces of styrofoam. Most people are just apathetic or ignorant or both here and there is trash everywhere. Each time I try to think about a solution for one problem here, it invariably leads to thinking about more problems and more possible solutions and can become an overwhelming and vicious cycle. 

The only thing I was caught off guard by was a boat tour on the Madu River that we did last week. The boats are old with really crappy engines that smell and spew fumes into the air and water. And I know they’re just perpetually running all day taking groups of tourists through the mangroves and to have their feet nibbled by fish. They also exploited a baby monkey and a baby crocodile for pictures (in hopes of tips), which I didn’t like. 

Bad boats. You are not eco-friendly! 

Bad boats. You are not eco-friendly! 

There is definitely lots of progress still to be made in Sri Lanka but I think I am staying pretty true to my sustainable traveling philosophy here.  

Kandy, Sri Lanka (Cultural Orientation)

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!) 

ARRIVAL

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. 

ACCOMMODATION

Kandy, Sri Lanka

Kandy, Sri Lanka

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. 

OBSERVATIONS

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. 

ORIENTATION

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. 

Artisan at the woodworking shop

Artisan at the woodworking shop

Tree of Life Batik

Tree of Life Batik

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. 

The Central Market

The Central Market

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. 

Sri Pada or Adam's Peak ( More image here ) 

Sri Pada or Adam's Peak (More image here

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.