For the springtime break last year, I was fortunate to be able to take a two-week trip to Sri Lanka with my mom and a dear friend from the desert. It was fun to travel in a small group … and it was especially fun to travel with my mom … seeing new places with her was an absolute joy.
Stepping off the plane in Colombo, we were greeted by warm, sunny air, beautiful women dressed in traditional saris, and an unheard of ease of arrival. I felt the immediate benefits of the tropical air kissing my skin and the gentle friendliness of Sri Lanka welcoming me.
Yes, it’s official … I am in love. In love with a place …. again. It’s been quite some time since I have felt this feeling, but Sri Lanka has captured my heart. Gentle breezes, warm sunshine, vastly differing landscapes, amazing animal life, beautiful tropical plants everywhere … and the people! The Sri Lankan people are warm and welcoming, stunningly beautiful, and kind beyond words. They walk the streets and sit in shops with huge smiles, greet you sincerely at every turn … the happiness that is exuded from them is incredible… and contagious.
Sri Lanka is a gentle land of temples, monkeys, sweet street dogs, tropical plants, humid air, and love for life …. life as it comes and in the moment.
We spent a quick few days in the capital & largest city, Colombo. I am usually not one to love the big cities of a country, as I don’t feel I get as ‘real’ of an experience in the big city. However, Colombo was different. It’s divided into sections (literally numbered quarters), which helps to give it a smaller feel. The city is green with tons of trees, flowers, and lakes. It sits on the ocean and has a beautiful beachfront and port. Tuk-tuks are the major mode of transportation and the roads are good. The traffic is heavy, but not jammed; pedestrians are everywhere – on foot and bike. It feels as if the entire city is outside. It is a city is full of temples … temples, temples, and more temples. Like all of Sri Lanka, as I am soon to discover.
Next we take the train north and east to Anuradhapura. My goal here is to see the Sri Maha Bodhi tree. This tree is believed to have been grown from a branch of the Bodhi tree in India where Buddha sat to achieve enlightenment. Planted in 288 BC, it is the oldest documented tree in the world. It is one of the most sacred relics of Buddhists in Sri Lanka and respected by Buddhists all over the world. Of course, this area of Sri Lanka is riddled with temples, meditation spots, and sacred places. We spend a full day seeing just a few of these old and beautiful spaces.
In the late afternoon we arrive at the Sri Maha Bodhi tree. Monkeys who hang out in giant prides around the gates guard the entrance to the park. Here we were asked to remove our shoes at the entrance; this is not unusual – but what is unusual is the size of this area. It is a small park of sorts, lined with hundreds of Bodhi trees, incense pots, enlightenment candles, stands selling flowers for offerings, prayer flags, beautiful areas to pray, even a small temple. However, the entire park area is made of sand. It is late afternoon and the sun has had all day to work its heat into the white sand. Our feet are almost immediately on fire! This tranquil place of worship is transformed into a scavenger hunt for shaded spots to rest our burning feet. We meet several Monks as we wander the park. They show us the proper way to de-stem our lotus and to light our enlightenment candle. We eventually make our way across the acres of hot, white sand, up the steps, and through the gates to the Sri Maha Bodhi. Here there are several prayer rooms where people leave offerings to show honor. I have bought a few beautiful lotus flowers to leave, after a short blessing; I take my leave of the prayer room and go to see the tree. It is beautiful, but surprisingly small for such an old tree. I find myself thinking, “I would not want to be responsible for caring for this ancient, sacred tree.”
The next morning we’re off to the bus station headed for Kandy. Taking a bus in Sri Lanka is quite the experience. First, it is hot – a no air, no movement, sticky, hot mess. And crowded. And it stops. A LOT. With each stop more people squeeze on. Soon the bus driver is popping down jump seats all over the bus that I didn’t even see. And people are standing on top of me – literally. But they are so friendly and helpful that it’s hard to get irritated. One local offered me a local treat called ‘bwok’ (I am sure I’m not spelling that correctly – but that’s how it sounds) Bwok is some sort of root wrapped in ‘beetle leaves’ with tobacco and lime paste. I skipped the tobacco and lime paste – but I did try the root. It was bitter. And impossible to swallow. I chewed for ages but could not make it go down – finally I gave up and, in what I thought was discrete, put it into a tissue. The man saw and said; “good, now you’re ready for the leaves.” The ‘beetle leaves’ were minty and very green tasting, absolutely delicious after the bitter, dry root. After I had eaten this, I realized that the bus driver and several of the men on the bus were chewing away on the root also. When I asked what it was, I was told it is ‘natural energy’. Maybe I should have asked before I ate it? I sat back and waited, certain I was going to get high or hallucinate. Neither happened and all was well. The driver, chewing incessantly on the bwok, sped through windy mountain roads, weaving between tuk-tuks, cattle, and people on foot & bike, all the while texting on his phone. Somehow, I was not the least bit nervous (maybe the bwok did have some effect). We made it to Kandy late in the evening, found a tuk-tuk & made our way up the mountain to our homestay to meet our host, May.
Nestled in the trees, Kandy is a beautiful little city with so much to see and do. Of course, there are temples everywhere; however tea plantations, herbal farms for Ayurvedic remedies and elephant orphanages also surround the town….all of which we took in during our short stay in Kandy. Kandy is a maze of narrow, hilly streets winding though the trees with tuk-tuks at every corner. It was here that I received an Ayurvedic massage and body treatment. This is possibly the most intense three hours my body has ever experienced…. Beginning with a body scrub, moving on to hot oil massage for the scalp, a coffin-type personal steam bath, a shower, and finally an herbal breathing treatment.
After the experience on the bus, and there being no train route where we want to go next, we opt for a driver for the slow trip to Adam’s Peak, the national park, and finally to the beaches in the south.
Toga, our driver, picks us up, pills our packs into the trunk, and we are off – headed south. He takes us the long way, stopping at fascinating and scenic areas on the way to Adam’s Peak. Waterfalls, a small town that is referred to as “little England” (it really does look like England – even the misty, relatively chilly weather), tea farms, monkeys, and cool, old guest houses …. All things we would not have seen from the bus – Toga shows us along the way. It is on this route that we stop at a traditional silk shop where we meet several beautiful Hindu women who wrap us in their traditional garment – the sari. I discover this amazing garment is made of one single piece of silk cloth. When we arrive to the town of Nallathanniya at the base of Adam’s Peak it is late in the evening. Toga jokes that we would have to climb “little Adam’s Peak” to get to our room – at least we thought it was joke – our room is at the very top of the hill – above the hotel… 9 flights of stairs later & we are settled in!
Before embarking on this trip, we all decided we wanted to climb Adam’s Peak. Adam’s Peak is a 7,359-foot tall mountain in central Sri Lanka. It is known for the Sri Pada (‘sacred footprint’) – a rock formation near the summit, which Buddhists believe is the footprint of Buddha, Hindus believe it to be that of Shiva, and in Islamic & Christian traditions it is believed to be the footprint of Adam. The big rock ‘footprint’ at the top makes this beautiful mountain quite the religious pilgrimage for each of these different religions.
The tradition is to hike up the mountain at night to be at the summit for sunrise…. With this in mind, at 1:30 AM we begin our trek across town and up the mountain – climbing steep, wobbly, uneven steps made of rock and stone. Four hours and over 5,000 steps later, on aching, wobbly legs, we near the summit just as light begins to peek through the clouds. We quicken our pace to be at the top when the sun breaks through. The last 50 steps are pure torture fueled by total adrenaline. We stand on the steps at the base of the temple and watch the sun break through the clouds over the tops of surrounding mountains. Breathtaking does not begin to describe the beauty; terms such as ‘spiritual’ or ‘life changing’ cannot describe the feeling of accomplishment and self love I experience in this moment. The colors I witness bursting through the clouds are of the earth and sun and heavens meeting at this one point and exploding with the light of new dawn. This new dawn has given me a fulfillment and sense of inner peace I have yet to experience. At the beginning of the trail a monk had given me a blessing of safe travels and placed a bracelet on my right wrist. On the summit, I find myself fingering this bracelet with a thoughtful mind. I am thinking of people and choices we each make in life and those who we chose to surround ourselves with… on this trip I am appreciating the goodness of people. The love and care in a stranger’s smile on the street, the helpfulness of the host in Kandy, the accommodating man at the hotel who allowed us to move to a room with a balcony, my friends – old and new – who are there for me when I need a laugh or a shoulder, my family – who is there with love and open arms no matter where I am or how often I come home. I am filled with gratitude for the people in my life.
Next we’re off to Yalla National Park for safari. Here we sleep in a tree house and see elephants, leopards, monitor lizards, peacocks and so much beauty. We visit a beach with a Tsunami memorial for the 49 people who lost their lives on this beach almost 10 years ago. Standing on the beautiful beach, looking out onto the Indian Ocean, I can’t help but remember how much respect we must maintain for the power of nature.
We finish our trip with several days on the southern tip of the island in the small beach town of Unawatuna. Unawatuna is just a few kilometers from the larger town of Galle, which was almost totally destroyed by the Tsunami. Here almost every local I meet has a Tsunami story. Listening to story after story of the people I meet, I am fascinated by the need we have as humans to share our stories. What is it about words that help us to work through trauma and express joy?
We are in Unawatuna long enough to meet a few people to call “friends” – people who I hope to keep in touch with over time. The beach is stunningly beautiful and the way of life is laid back and relatively carefree. Drinking coconut juice and eating fresh pineapples by the water’s edge, long walks through the sand, late lunches that watch the sun drop below the horizon, listening to monkeys grunt & howl in the trees and spending endless hours talking with people I love is the way I will remember my time in Unawatuna.
Thank you, Sri Lanka, for the lovely experience… for allowing me to love you and be sweetly embraced by your warmth and beauty. Thank you for sharing your tranquility and peace with this desert-dwelling traveler who needed serenity more than I knew.