Over the Hills and Far Away


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Asia » Sri Lanka » Central Province » Kandy
February 20th 2012
Published: July 11th 2012
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And our minds were meant to sail
Take a rest from our thoughts
Take a break from this world
And we'll feel miles away
From the places that we used to be



- Years Around The Sun, "Miles Away"



You know those days when you wish you were somewhere else? You can't stop glancing out the window. Your mind keeps meandering through fantastical ideas and far flung memories of a better time. It's natural. Some days and some places are simply more exciting than others.

I am home now. Back in the States - the good ole US of A, and I've been struggling with this truth. I'm sitting in the living room of my parents house typing this incredibly belated blog entry, reminescing about and reliving all the places I've been, and it's tough. Home is great, but I did some pretty incredible things in the past year and a half, and this blogging is reminding of them all - which is a blessing and a curse in a way. Part of me just wants to reacclimate to normal life. It's almost too tormenting to go back to all these far away lands, teasing me like an alarm clock teases a dream. But since we're here, I suppose I should try. Please, if you'd like to hear, let me tell you a story about the time I went to Sri Lanka.


Kandy



My flight from Bangkok arrived late, so from the airport I went to the nearest town with cheap guesthouses to rest for the night. I woke up in a town called Negombo, but I was at the bus station by 7:30 and on my way into the hill country by 8. Sri Lanka doesn't really do the big, comfortable tour buses like other countries. For one, the distances just aren't that great around the country, but also the roads that run through the central region are just an endless tangle of serpentine streets that wrap around the hills. So rather than coaches, Sri Lanka uses much smaller, but much more frequent city-type buses that can more practically negotiate the twisting highways that connect the middle of the country to the coast.

The trip into Kandy took about three hours. I was stepping out of my bus and beginning the search for a guesthouse before noon. Luckily, my search proved easy enough as I found a quaint little place called the Pink House just a short walk up a hill from the main lake.

Kandy is known as Sri Lanka's second city, after Colombo, as well as its cultural capital. It sits in a small bowl-shaped valley almost in the geographic center of the nation. Its higher altitude means Kandy enjoys a milder climate relative to anywhere on the coast. It still gets pretty warm, but regular mountain breezes keep the sweat from getting excessive. I was actually surprised at how comfortable I felt walking around the town at midday.

For the first few days of this trip I was on a pretty hectic schedule. Six days doesn't leave too much time for relaxing. I would only be staying in Kandy for one night, so I wanted to see as much as I could on this first day. At the top of my priority list for the moment however, was finding some delicious Sri Lankan food.

Remember, this trip happened before I'd been to India, so the only food experiences from the Subcontinent I had to compare to Sri Lankan food was the typical North Indian cuisine you find in the States - and from this I could tell a distinct difference: Not so much masala, tikka, madras, or paneer, but rather everything is just curry. Reminiscent of Myanmar and Indonesia, a normal Sri Lankan meal of rice and curry involves a heaping bowl of plain white rice accompanied by small portions of chicken curry, coconut sambal, and various vegitable sides. Spoon what you want over the rice and consume (fork not included). It is delicious and spicy by any standards.

After an enjoyable lunch, I found a map and started trekking up a nearby hill on which resided a massive white Buddha. There was said to be tremendous views of the town from this hill so I figured it would offer a nice place to get my bearings.

It was a quick but steep jaunt up to the top of the hill. On the way up I caught glimpses of the city below me, confirming that the trip would be worth the effort. At the top, I spent some time exploring the peaceful shrine that surrounded the seated Buddha. When I was ready for a little more climbing, I wound my way up the stairs that trace the back of the statue and emerge beside its enormous head.

Looking out over Kandy and the hills surrounding it, I was struck by the symbolism of standing essentially on Buddha's shoulder, the track of my vision matching his. I was seeing what he sees every day and night. I was gazing through the eyes of a God. Is this why people like to look down from high places? Does it make us feel God-like to encompass countless lives in a glance? I lingered in this perspective for the better part of an hour, watching a world I had just been introduced to move and teem and live, until I decided that my place was down there in it rather than here with my head in the clouds, wearing the guise of Gods.

When the sun began to get noticably lower in the sky, it was time to head to back down the hill. In the afternoon, I explored some of the sights around the lake. The Temple of the Tooth and the adjacent museums are very popular in Kandy and certainly one of the reasons the city is known as the cultural capital. The touts in this area are unavoidable and persistent, especially for solo travelers. But the Temple, while not visually spectacular, offers interesting insight into Sri Lankan history and religion and is definitely a worthwhile destination for any trip to Kandy.

That night I had a homemade dinner with the local family that owned the guesthouse I was staying in. I usually pride myself on eating everything I'm offered in these kinds of situations. Wasting food is a peeve of mine, especially in this part of the world, but the grandmother (and the cook) of this family continued to serve me food no matter how desperately I pleaded my surrender. It just kept coming and coming until I stood up and removed my dishes from the table. I was so stuffed it hurt to move, but I appreciated the incredible hospitality nonetheless. With a full belly and a long day of travel promised for the next day, I promptly retired to my room and went to sleep.

-------------------

I woke up the next day, had breakfast, and hopped in a tuktuk towards the train station. This day I was making my way through the hill country from Kandy to Hatton and then on to Delhousie, the town at the base of Adam's Peak. The best way to start the journey was to actually catch the train in the next town over from Kandy, which I don't even recall the name of. It was about a half-hour trip from the center of Kandy. I boarded the train, and we were on our way before noon.

My ticket was second class - general seating if I remember correctly - but I really wasn't interested in sitting in the hot, uncomfortable cars when such beautiful scenery was passing by. So I stowed my bags and moved up to the empty snack car where there were wide open windows and doors from which I watched as the train chugged and snaked through the lush hill country. In the beginning of the trip we rolled through verdant, green countryside, but as we climbed higher, the tropical surroundings fell away and were replaced by pine forests and tea plantations. The last thirty minutes or so before Hatton offered the most stunning vistas when the train traced the mountainside and there was nothing obstructing the view across the entire vast valley of patchwork tea fields.

The train pulled into Hatton after about three and a half hours. To get to Delhousie from there, you can either hire private transportation or wait for the daily bus that only runs during the pilgrimage season. Because I'm always traveling on a budget, I opted for the latter. The trip to Delhousie takes about an hour, and the road is narrow and has more twists than a pretzel, but I made it to the small outpost by mid-afternoon without any trouble. And now it was time to mentally prepare for the challenge awaiting me the following day. I would be pushing my own physical limits farther than they've gone in all my travels. I would be doing something unlike anything I've done before. I would climb Adam's Peak.


Adam's Peak



Adam's Peak is one of the most sacred places in Sri Lanka. It's also the second highest mountain in the country, although it appears less as a mountain and more like a sharp, conical, volcano-like spire rising out of the surrounding range. To view it from afar, the peak seems like a colossal shark's fin piercing rocky green waves. It is a truly imposing thing, but people climb it regularly. At the summit of the mountain there is a footprint, and each of Sri Lanka's major religions claim it belongs to one of their own prophets. Thus it holds importance for people throughout the nation, and during the dry season pilgrims come from far and wide to climb the peak and pay homage to whoever they believe stood in that fosilized print long ago.

So why was I there?

Well, I suppose you could say I was paying homage to my own personal philosophy in a way. Not so long ago I realized that the best things in life are hard. Anything worth having or doing takes effort, and usually the more difficult something is, the better the result will be. If its easy, it's probably cheap, shallow or temporary, and I don't want it. It's the challenges in our lives that we remember and look to and say it made us better people. These are the things worth time, worth pursuit. That's what I believe, and that's one reason why I was at Adam's Peak.

I was also doing something I'd never had the chance to do before. Surprisingly, in my past I'd never embarked on such an intense outdoor adventure as climbing a true mountain. Sure, I had hiked all around the world, but never anything at the caliber of Adam's Peak. So this was something new for me, and I was going it alone. I was exhilarated but not entirely confident.

Traditionally, people climb Adam's Peak during the night in order to reach the top in time for sunrise, so that's what I planned to do. By all accouns the ascent was supposed to take three to four hours or more depending on weather and physical conditioning. I woke up at 2 AM, got dressed and was almost immediately out the door and on the trail. Even at the base of the mountain the cold was substantial - enough to see my own chill breath - but I knew as soon as the blood started pumping I wouldn't even notice it.

Fortunately, I was attempting this during the pilgrimage season, which meant the whole trail up the mountain was lit throughout the night, and occasionally I would come upon small teashops set up along the trail. I was thankful for the light because I didn't come across many other travelers in the beginning of the walk. The lights also allowed me to look up and track my route up the mountainside. The trail was a gentle incline for the first thirty or forty-five minutes. After crossing a river the real staircases began - still not too bad though. A slow and steady pace kept my heartbeat even without taking any breaks. This went on for about an hour and a half. Eventually the top portion of the peak's cone towered above at a severe angle, and the hike becomes a climb in truth. The stairs were almost vertical, and I could only make it twenty or thirty yards before taking a break. Here was the challenge I had expected. I kept my head down, focusing on each single step then refocusing on the next. One, then another one, then another one. The last hour felt like an eternity. In the dark I could no longer see ahead or behind, I just had to trust that the top was up there, and that each step was taking me closer to it.

The stairs finally leveled out, and I realized I had made it to the top. I had reached the peak. I took a moment to catch my breath then walked around, reflecting on what I had just done. The climb took me just over three hours, but it was still about fourty-five minutes until sunrise. It was then that the cold I had forgotten about seeped back in. The wind and the sweat made it much worse. This was the coldest I had ever been in Asia, but there was nothing to do but wait it out. I was huddled in with a Sri Lankan family for a while, but soon the sky in the east began to lighten and people began to stir.

I was there, as the sun crested the distant horizon, again clutching the banister of a terrace for the devine. Yet this time, in this sacred place, there were no higher beings about. Not for me at least - just a mortal man there to accomplish a challenge bestowed unto him by none except himself. There is, I believe, sanctity in solitude.

The sun glimmered its first golden rays on the pilgrims waiting at the summit of Adam's Peak, and slowly the night began its retreat and the cold started to subside. Cameras were snapping all around. A short time later the Buddhist ceremonies began around the holy footprint, signaling the few foreigners that it was time to either settle down until it was over or start making their way down. I knew there was a long day waiting ahead of me so I decided to begin the long trek down to Delhousie. While only slightly less dificult, the return trip at least had the luxury of daylight. In this region of the hill country, Adam's Peak is the tallest thing in any direction, so the views stretch out for miles and miles. The hardest part was keeping my eyes down on the shockingly steep stairs I had climbed during the night.

Finally back in Delhousie and thoroughly exhausted, I had no time to relax. I grabbed a shower and a quick lunch and was on the next bus leaving town. My destination? The beach.

--------------------

I enjoyed writing this entry. It was almost therapeutic in a sense. It's like revisiting a blissful dream you almost forgot you had. And this is how all my forthcoming blog entries will be, I'm sure. But it has also reminded me of something else I almost forgot after a year and a half of traveling: While its great to have these places and experiences that we dream about, its just not practical to maintain that heightened fantasy forever. The truth is monotony is important. We need those mundane, boring days to keep us grounded - to remind us that dreams are dreams and reality is reality, so that when we finally do make it to a land miles away, it won't be taken for granted.


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12th July 2012

Welcome back...
I'm delighted that you decided to continue your blogs although the thought that you have transitioned to a boring life never to return to the adventures of the last year and a half may be depressing. But drawing lessons from these journeys will be cathartic. And remember, once a traveler always a traveler...there is more to experience someday.

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