I Beg You, Don’t Ruin It

by Ant Stone on March 14, 2008

in Sri Lanka

Beep beep. One-forty. Beep beep. One-fifty. Beep beep. Two am, Monday morning. “What to do in Sri Lanka?” Step, step. Breath in. Step, step. Breath out. Step, step. Coffee. Black. Breath in. Step, step. Breath out. Step, step. Breath in. Coffee. Black. Strong. Breath out. Sigh. Step step. Breath in. Step… step. Breath out. Coffee. Black. Strong. Sugar. Breath. Breath. Step… step. Breath. Photo? Click click. Shiver. Click click. Shiver. Click click. Step, step. Coffee. Strong. Black. Sugar. Biscuit. Step, step, step, step… step…. step… st… ep. Eight-twenty am, Monday morning. Coffee. Strong. Black. Sugar. Biscuit. Toast, eggs, pancakes, fruit, cheese and a sandwich. Breath out. I climbed a holy mountain that Monday morning, what did you do?

Sri Pada (meaning Sacred Footprint and popularly known as Adam’s Peak) is a mountain of myth, a hilltop of heroes, a peak of pilgrims and a tor of tourists. It’s tip is smothered by a temple where a shroud supposedly covers (in one theory at least) the footprint of Eve’s not-so-better half, but to reach the top it’s a slow stagger up a snaking stairway of around five thousand steps. At twenty-five there was no doubt I should reach the summit but en route I shimmied past pilgrims of incredible ages, the young and old, some carried silently in their parents arms amid the devoted disabled, marching monks and gangs of yobbish youths. I regularly questioned ‘why am I doing this?’ and saw the answer in every pilgrim’s eyes, the answer was breathtakingly obvious, why are they (predominantly Buddhist pilgrims) doing this? As a traveler it’s in my make up to immerse myself in their world and come to some conclusion. Lord Buddha. Lord Shiva. Lord Jesus. Come all ye mighty, joyful and triumphant. Buddhists hold the original claim that the footprint was Lord Buddha’s size nine. Hindu’s claim it was Shiva’s and Christian’s and Muslim’s concur that it was actually Mr. Adam’s penance to stand on one foot after his fruity faux pas, though my favorite theory is that the peak has nothing to do with religion at all, it’s simply where butterfly’s go to die (if the flight up is half as arduous as the walk then I sympathise). Our guide that night came with a wagging tail and a suspicious love of lemon puffs; the guesthouses dog, we reckoned, must do this walk every single night!

If marching up and down a holy mountain wasn’t enough for the gods then my next step surely scored me some bonus Buddha-points. The sweetly named city of Kandy lies in the north of the region known as the Hill Country. Famed within for its resistance against foreign invaders, until the British moved in, fulfilled the inevitable and flooded the region with Tamil workers from south India (Tamil’s now represent 18% of the population, it’s factions of their northern cousins, ‘Jaffna Tamils’ that are currently at war with the government) to work on the tea plantations. The city is also home to one of the country’s most sacred temples, Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa). It is said that whoever holds custody of Buddha’s incisor has the right to rule the land. It’s a long story as to how the tooth found its way here (and has nothing to do with too much Kandy!). In a nutshell it was removed from the ashes of Lord Buddha’s funeral pyre and hidden in the hair of a princess, she fooled airport security with her good looks and the tooth began a fumbling tour of Sri Lanka in the hands of various poker-faced Sinhalese. Buddhists believe it to be a powerful protector – though the temple was cruelly blown up in 1998 with the finger pointed firmly towards those ‘Jaffna Tamil’ terrorists, the LTTE (aka Tamil Tigers). Nevertheless the temple has been superbly restored and is one of the finest I’ve seen outside of Tibet. There’s a lot more to Kandy, from botanical gardens to a garrison cemetery, tuskers to bats, pubs to pilgrims but as is the theme of my go-go month you must follow me, to the Ancient Cities.

A tourist ticket ($40) gives you access to most of the sites in what is coined the Cultural Triangle. From the cave temples at Dambulla where I stood flummoxed at the humble nature of countless statues of Buddha himself to the citadel of Sigiriya, a flat topped rock that holds the ruins of an ancient – such is the theme – residence (some argue to be a fortress, some a palace while others cry monastery.) Some travelers had told me elephants one roamed around the 200m high plateau, an unlikely theory given that the rock had sheer faces on all sides and the only way up (even in those black-and-white days of the 10th century) was by a narrow stairway. The rock is however one of Sri Lanka’s most striking sights, giving 360-degree views of the surrounding jungle. Downhill from Sigiriya, alas, was quite literally downhill. The ticket took us north to Anuradhapura (Ana-radda-por-a) a former capital of Sri Lanka with a vast smattering of ruins to prove it. Yawn. We’ve coined it Anaradha-borer as I bored myself to ruins just being there. For $40 you’d expect something for your money, a decent explanation or even, yawn, a map. We gladly left it behind to seek salvation in Polonnaruwa (Pol-on-a-ru-a). Yawn. More ruins, though admittedly more impressive on the eye, but ruins nonetheless. One thing I noticed in Polonna-yawn-a was the vast numbers of headless Buddha’s. Age would be a sturdy explanation, but in all honesty I think even the statues got so bored with looking at deserted palaces, bathing ponds and temples that they signaled to the gods to knock their heads off so as they could go on enjoying nirvana. The splendid woodland settings for, yawn, both Ana’ and Polo’ were a silver lining though even they were riddled with insistent hawkers, which brings me to my close.

Walking around a dagoba (of which I’ve now seen so many I fear I’ve developed a phobia) in, yawn, Ana’ I was asked by a tourist (rare in these parts) how long I’ve been in Sri Lanka, his response to me telling him two months was “fucking hell! What the fuck have you done? All I get from morning to night is ‘money, money, fucking, money!’” It took me by surprise; he reasoned he wasn’t a beach person, whereas I’d spent a month on the heavenly shores. But then it dawned on me, he almost had a point. The further inland you go, the more you’re seen as a ‘rupee?’, ‘your money?’ (meaning foreign currency), ‘school pen?’, ‘bon bon?’ or ‘cigarette?’ Not always from the poor, sometimes just from cheeky school kids, sometimes from chancers on a bus or in a café or sometimes on home turf, from your guesthouse manager. It seems more of a habit than a need, and in central Sri Lanka – physically unaffected by the Boxing Day tsunami – it gets a little tedious. It’s a negative fact, that you can barely visit a temple or toilet, a park ruins or a high street without someone be them beggar or bourgeois trying their luck and asking for something. My theories range from them becoming accustomed, and rewarded for it during their times of real need in the aftermath of the tsunami, to the reality that many truly believe that all westerners are millionaires. The island of Sri Lanka has it’s fair share of poverty, but some of it’s people exploit the fact for selfish gain. I know the man drinking cappuccino next to me doesn’t need my foreign currency for his daughter. I know the schoolboy was dared by his friends to ask for the pen. I know the woman selling flowers for puja has no desire for bon-bons. I also know the blind man singing for money on a bus is ill-treated by the system, and the old lady silently screaming ‘please’ at me with shattered eyes has little hope of creature comforts, so I give in, but I don’t like playing judge and jury everyday. Taking a step back the $40 entry fee for the Ancient Cities (or Ancient Shitties) is an extension of this exploitation. Most of the ‘Big Four’ are $20 entry for you or I, whereas for locals it’s a mere 20 rupees (10p). I agree that we should pay more, but that difference is out of line, especially given that you’re given nothing for your contribution. On the flip-side locals are battling with high taxes and low wages – after all, they have a war to pay for. The tourist industry, already suffering form a post-tsunami slump and now a string of international governments mirroring their media’s murky impression of what is not in fact an island battlefield, the war is in the northern territories and though isolated incidents have affected individual areas these are generally not targeted at tourists and it’s certainly unlikely that they should target the southern beaches which hold no strategic advantage.

Most locals predict the war will be over this year, some claim as soon as August. I’m not convinced. It’s deeply ingrained in the fabrics of the societies in question. The government has the bigger guns, the jets, the media and the popular support whereas the Tigers have pride to protect and prejudice to punish. I hope for the solemn shopkeeper sitting on the threshold of his empty store. I hope for the guesthouse owners tossing business cards at you when you disembark a bus or train, in the vain hope you’ll offer them some salvation. I hope for the apparently invisible family selling king coconuts beside the road. I hope for the kottu roti fella staring into space while chopping in his spicy ingredients. I hope for the tuk-tuk driver catching forty winks in his mobile office cum home, that this war is forgiving in it’s aftermath and those who grind their way up Sri Pada find exactly what they’re hoping for.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Reb March 14, 2008 at 3:28 pm

Thats it…..i am stopping my blog and i am going to steal all your pages as my own!!!!

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