Escape to Sri Lanka
In Asia, everybody squats. Merchants squat beside their wares, commuters squat while waiting for their bus, and everyone squats over the toilet. However, heavily traveled areas have a number of western-style toilet facilities. It’s not all that rare to find footprints on the toilet seat, since the sit toilet is an anomaly in much of the eastern world. In order to squat over such a bulky object, one might logically stand on the seat. I recently left my own footprints in a number of Asian countries, though not on any toilet seats.
In April of 2000, I embarked on a five-month journey to South Asia and Australia. I’d traveled around the world two years before, starting out with a close friend, then traveling solo for several months. That experience had changed my life, and I wanted more. More change, more growth, more life-affirming experiences. I'd been planning this trip since my spring return from my first journey. Leaving the U.S. in the spring two years later, I seemed to be right on schedule. What I hadn't planned on was that during that interim, I'd fall in love, enjoy a passionate albeit brief relationship, and then suffer a broken heart when the relationship ended. While this may not seem like the best time to travel, I had no intention of changing my plans and no intention of giving this breakup so much credence that a change of plans might seem like a viable option. Besides, four months had passed. It was time to move on, figuratively and literally.
So I left. Alone. Thinking I had no expectations, yet expecting all along that this journey would prove as cathartic and awe-inspiring as its predecessor. I believed that my heart and soul had pretty much healed. I believed I was ready to travel through a number of countries in which I didn't speak the language. I believed this challenge would expedite whatever vaguely dark inner journey I was on. I expected, without really realizing it, that I would come home glowing, victorious, on fire with the love of life. It didn't quite work out that way.
After five hectic weeks of covering too much ground in India, during which I literally felt as if I were on the run, I spent a few days relaxing in the southwestern beach town of Kovalum. Here I prepared my escape to the small island nation of Sri Lanka. I met a woman who had spent the past few weeks traveling there. After seeing news reports about the 17-year-old civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils heating up, I asked if she’d run into any trouble. She said the beach boys would wank off in front of western women, and she had to push one guy away from her door after he followed her all the way back to her room. Then there were the travelers she’d met who ran into some Tamil Tigers (an organization that relies on guerilla strategies in its fight to establish an independent Tamil state) in one of the national parks in the southeast. Oh, and the monsoon rains had just begun. I was still looking forward to getting there.
Ancient Cities and Dehydration
My flight landed in the capital city of Colombo. After India, I’d had enough big, hot cities to last a while, so I took a bus to the smaller size and cooler climate of Kandy. A small lake marked the middle of town, and on its north shore was Dalada Maligawa, also known as the Temple of the Tooth. Here, the country’s most important Buddhist relic, the tooth of the Buddha, is housed. The tooth itself is housed in a series of caskets that are displayed to the public on occasion. I didn't see the tooth, and I didn't see the caskets. I didn't even know for sure if I was looking at the door that might open into the room where the caskets were. Still, I was somewhere close to Buddha’s tooth, and sometimes that’s as good as it gets.
My visit coincided with Vesak, the full moon holiday celebrated during May. Each full moon is celebrated, but this is the holiest, since Buddha was born during a full moon in May, attained enlightenment during a full moon in May, and died during a full moon in May. Thousands of people lined up to enter the temple. There was a procession to celebrate the holy day. Elephants clad in colored robes clambered by. They were followed by musicians, dancers, and men snapping long whips back and forth across the street.
From Kandy, I went north to visit some of the ancient cities, built during the golden age of Sinhalese civilization. I had met a young couple, Mark and Sham, in the airport at Colombo and we had traveled to Kandy together. We decided to continue on to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. This one-time capital is filled with thousand-year-old Buddhist ruins. Most striking was Gal Vihara, where four separate images of Buddha have all been carved from one slab of granite. The standing Buddha is seven meters tall. The reclining Buddha is 14 meters long, approximately equal to the width of a basketball court. These massive figures seemed gentle and calm, as if some of the actual qualities of the religious philosopher exuded from the stone.
Mark, Sham, and I had rented bicycles to tour the ruins. May is a hot month in Sri Lanka, and the relentless heat had severely dehydrated me. It was impossible to ever get completely cool, and I sweat even as I slept. Unable to ingest as much liquid as I was losing, I was accompanied throughout the ruins with a two-day-old headache, a stiff neck, and sore muscles. I drank over one and a half gallons of liquid in one day trying to rehydrate. In the meantime, every bump, every hole, and every rock along the way sent shock waves up through the bike stem and into my head.
The next stop was Dambulla, where I visited 2000-year-old cave temples. Each of the five temples was filled with Buddha images, some of them carved out of granite, some made of plaster, others painted on the walls. Dambulla provided more serenity than I had experienced in weeks. I'd ventured forth without Mark and Sham, who were traveling on a limited budget. Since I didn't have to consider their tight purse strings, I'd splurged on a guide, an expense equivalent to about one dollar. He provided information, humor, and company during my tour of the temples. The caves are at the top of a steep walkway, and by the time I reached them, I was literally drenched with sweat. Yet inside it was cool and quiet, dark and peaceful. Monkeys ran across the stone terrace, from which I could see my final destination in the area, Sigiriya.
The ancient fortress of Sigiriya was built on top of a 200-meter granite slab during the fifth century. I went early one morning to avoid the heat, arriving before anyone else. A guide offered his services during the climb to the top. While I never really agreed to pay him, he accompanied me, providing a few facts along the way in halting English. The final vertiginous ascent up a series of metal stairwells, attached to the rockface in recent years, made me very happy to have his company. Once on top, I sat on the granite throne and surveyed the kingdom as the wind whipped around me. This would have been a wonderful seat to share with a friend, looking out over the treetops below, imagining the people who once lived here. My loneliness soon drove me back down, with a stop en route to look at the 1500-year-old frescoes of scantily clad women. Even during the fifth century, men depicted the ideal woman with Barbie doll proportions.
Mark and Sham were astonished to see me back so soon. Once again, it seemed I was on the run, quickly moving through the paces without feeling like I was a part of the experience. I didn't really want to be with them anymore, but I didn't want to be alone. I found solo public transport to be exhausting, making it worthwhile to travel with a couple of cheapskates for a while.
The next day, solo again, I was quite excited to find a bus to the hill country after only asking twice. The bus filled to capacity and beyond, while vendors and beggars and a guy with a guitar held together with tape all filed through. The woman next to me dozed off immediately, using my shoulder as a pillow. The girl on the other side gave her seat to a pregnant woman who then invited the girl to sit with her, so I was crushed and crooked against the sleeping woman. The seat in front of me kept reclining further and further back, eventually touching my knees. The passenger couldn’t make it go back up. Then my seat did the same thing, much to the disdain of the girl behind me. She periodically kicked and smacked the back of my seat, not wanting me to forget that the angle was causing discomfort to someone besides myself. The countryside was a welcome distraction: mountainsides covered with lush tea plantations, thick forests, and cool air.
I spent one night in Nuwara Eliya, an old British hill station. (When the British were in residence, they built villages up in the hills to escape the summer heat in the lower areas.) I’d met a bitter old American woman while in Kandy, who griped incessantly about everything. When I had mentioned that I was going to Nuwara Eliya, she informed me that there was “nothing there.” Unfortunately, I agreed with her. I booked a seat on the train to Ella the following day. There were no first-class tickets available, so I bought a ticket for second-class seating. When the train arrived, I walked its entire length and back again, but there was not a single empty space. Even the doorways were crowded with people. As the train rolled out of the station, I jumped in the luggage car. Inside were two Sri Lankan men, sitting quietly by one of the two open doors, no luggage, and lots of space. I placed my backpack on the floor by the other open door, sat on top of it, and watched the tea-covered mountainsides roll by. It was an enjoyable journey, much preferred to a bus with broken seats.
Three hours later, we were in Ella. As the only guest at the Lizzie Villa Guest House, I enjoyed a solitary evening, sitting on the porch listening to chirping crickets and barking dogs. Dinner consisted of a massive plate of steaming hot brown rice, dahl (lentils), beans, cabbage with coconut, stewed tomatoes, and pappadam (crispy fried dough). I went to bed full and content.
The next day, I studied the homemade map posted on the wall of the guesthouse, and set out walking to the waterfall and to Ella Rock. The only verbal instruction I’d received from the guesthouse proprietress was to turn left after reaching the black railroad bridge. After walking along the tracks for what seemed like an inordinately long time, I passed a man wearing a loose white shirt and baggy pants. Hoping he spoke English, I said “Bridge?” He did speak English, but he didn’t know this word. He immediately fell into step beside me, talking about other things. We soon arrived at the bridge, where Sugath learned a new English word, and I got a great guide. Without his help, I would have found the bridge and nothing else.
He took me to a nearby waterfall, and when I asked him how to get to Ella Rock, he led the way. We walked through his farmland and to his tiny one-room house. He pulled two pieces of corn from a pot of hot water, shook them off, wrapped them in newspaper, and had me put them in my backpack for our lunch. We then walked on a barely visible trail and began to climb. And climb and climb and climb. After several breaks during which I tried to catch my breath, we reached the top. A small Sri Lankan flag had been tied to a long stick that was jammed into the earth. I sat beside it and smiled out over the expanse of mountains and valley. The not-so-tall, dark, and handsome farmer sat nearby. He provided half a day's guidance and sweet companionship, both of which I sorely needed.
Sawasdeeka! Hello from Thailand.
Dr. Seuss must have been an avid snorkeler or diver; the underwater world looks so much like his books it’s uncanny.
Underneath the rolling waves there are many critters
Some are lumpy ugly things much like apple fritters.
Underneath the rolling waves you’ll find neon colors
Splashed upon twisty things that look a bit like crullers.
Nowhere else will you find creatures so quixotic
And never will doughnuts be quite this exotic.
I swam past schools of hundreds of fish, listening to the coral crunch as they fed, hearing only that and my own breath. Purple clams with iridescent blue and green around their edges clapped shut when I waved my hand over their shells. I was fascinated by Christmas tree worms, which look like little feathered flowers in the shape of an evergreen; if you get too close, they withdraw completely into holes in the coral, effectively disappearing.
While visiting Ko Phi Phi, an island on the Andaman Sea, I was told where the blacktip reef sharks congregate. Early the next morning, I took my snorkel, swam out as directed, and found two of them. Or perhaps they found me. As they swam slow, lazy circles around me, I became acutely aware of my solitude, but at the same time I was exhilarated. I reminded myself that blacktips are not aggressive, so I swam a few more strokes. Four additional sleek, finned torpedoes joined the circle. Again I felt very alone and vulnerable. I don’t know why being accompanied by another hunk of human flesh would have provided comfort, but I knew it would. Maybe because the odds of my being the victim of a freak attack by non-aggressive sharks would decrease. More likely, I longed for the psychological buffer that a companion provides. I turned to swim toward shore, and a big fat shark glided past. I grinned for the rest of the morning.
After ordering rice and devilled crab at the beachfront restaurant, I was joined by so many flies that I carried the two plates to my room. There I struggled with the crab shell, getting the sauce all over myself in the process, and ultimately only swallowed a few bites of meat. Traveling alone is like eating devilled crab. It’s messy and difficult and frustrating, but the few bites of sweet flesh make it mostly worthwhile.
Hanging with the Monkeys in Indonesia
I walked to the Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali, where the locals worship at a variety of temples, and the monkeys intimidate the tourists until they surrender the bananas they bought at the entrance. Thick vines hung from the highest branches of the trees all the way down to the ground. Bright green moss covered the stone statues. And the monkeys seemed to celebrate their good fortune...I watched one spinning in circles as he went down the walkway. After spotting a cute small fellow in a tree, I walked over to offer him a banana. Unfortunately, one of the big brutes intercepted me. When these guys approach, you pay attention. I found the best solution is to toss a banana (two if they’re really insistent) and keep walking. Otherwise, they’ll bully you out of your entire stash.
After hearing people yelling, I walked over to check out the commotion, a tip I picked up from previous travel (if someone’s yelling, there’s probably something to see). A monkey had managed to steal a roll of film from a tourist and had run up a tree to chew on it. Since I was surrounded by scads of the creatures, I crouched to photograph the scene, keeping a tight grip on my camera. Suddenly, a monkey jumped on my back, giving a whole new meaning to the old cliché, and scaring the crap out of me. Another man, evidently a monkey magnet, had approached with a camcorder, and the animals used him as a jungle gym.
Dealing with the Dead
I caught a flight to the southern tip of Sulawesi. After a ten-hour bus trip, I arrived in Tanatoraja. The next day, I attended a funeral ceremony (the dry season, July to September, is the time of year that many funerals, weddings, and house blessings take place). Ever wondered what kind of sucking sound a buffalo with a lacerated windpipe makes? Neither had I, but now I know, after witnessing the slaughter of five of them. A French spectator did a face plant, fainting dead away. I appreciated this immensely for a couple of reasons. One, because she fainted and I didn't, and two, it gave me somewhere to focus my attention, besides the gory spectacle in front of me.
After tending to the French woman, I watched as the buffalo were led, one at a time, into the courtyard. One of the animal’s back legs was tied to a stump, then a man whacked the buffalo’s neck with a machete. Sometimes only one blow was needed; other times, a lot more effort was involved.
The funeral is the most important of the many Torajan ceremonies. This elaborate send-off to the afterlife involves the sacrifice of both buffalo and pigs. The buffalo in particular is a very important animal in Tanatoraja (the Toraja build their houses in the shape of buffalo horns). The number of animals sacrificed indicates the wealth of the deceased. It is also believed that it impresses the gods, who then will look more favorably upon the surviving family members. In addition, the animals are believed to accompany their masters to the next life, serving as vehicles to heaven.
Funeral ceremonies last from one to seven days. Family members file in and are seated in bamboo pavilions. Following the ceremony, the numerous guests feast on the plentiful meat.
The next day, I stopped by a travel agency to get information about other events. I didn’t get as much help as I’d wanted (I think I wanted glossy brochures, a reserved seat on an air-con bus, and instant companions), but I did run into some German acquaintances whom I had met in a few days earlier. I accompanied them to a cockfight. Butchery is really not my idea of a good time, but when in Toraja.…
Before each fight, a low rumble rolled through the crowd as men excitedly placed their bets. Then the cocks fought, the loser had his leg cut off and his neck broken, and the next fight began. For me, the entertainment was watching the spectators, and the one man responsible for controlling them. He would periodically whack people with a towel or throw water when individuals edged too close to the ring.
Over the next few days, I visited a number of remarkable gravesites. Some of the gravesites are marked with tau taus, or wooden effigies. In Tanatoraja, people aren’t buried in the earth, but placed in caves or in manmade holes in a sheer rock face.
I visited a 'traditional village' called Keta Kesu. I hated it instantly: a bunch of identical odd-shaped houses, all in a sterile-feeling square compound, none of them inhabited, topped off by an unexpected entrance fee. However, I wandered past the shops and found cliffs with coffins hanging along their sides. A few coffins were intricately carved, some in the shape of buffalo, some in the shape of pigs. As the coffins rot, bones tumble down. The ground was littered with skulls and femurs. I felt like I’d passed through the looking glass. Beyond the commercial hype, I sat and watched the shadows play across the wood, rock, and bone. I found such clear evidence of mortality refreshing, clarifying values and priorities and reality.
The Ugly American
After Tanatoraja, I went to Ujung Padang, in order to catch my flight for my next destination. Unfortunately, I had three days until my flight. I became impatient, grumpy, and rude. I became the Ugly American.
It began when I was awakened early in the morning by the hotel staff, asking if I wanted to get up and eat breakfast. Well, no; if I did, I’d already be up consuming that boiled egg and slice of white bread. I went by the post office to see if any letters had been delivered via poste restante (general delivery)--no mail. I walked to a travel agent’s office to get information about diving in the area, but the guy I needed to talk to wasn’t due for another hour and a half. To fill the time, I checked flight availability, because I didn’t want to be stuck in Ujung Padang any longer than absolutely necessary. No seats were available.
No rooms were available at the guesthouse I wanted to stay in. I found an Internet Cafe so I could check email, but couldn’t access my account. I returned to the travel agency and tried to get a ticket out again. No luck. Voicing my mounting frustrations, I tried to get dive information. The agent finally just gave me the name of a dive shop and was probably happy to see me go. En route to the shop, I saw a Garuda airline office. I went in to check the ticket situation again. (This is Asia, and just because you’ve been told ‘no’ once or twice or ten times, it might not be true.) This visit seemed encouraging, with the agent calling someone then telling me to go to the main office for the airline. I hired a becak (bicycle rickshaw), not bothering to negotiate the price beforehand. When I asked the price after arriving, this cheeky bastard had the nerve to say 20,000 rupiah. That’s almost as much as a 30-kilometer ride in an air-conditioned taxi. I refused, rather vehemently. We went back and forth a few times before I got too fed up to deal with him. I went in the office, and he waited outside the door. I tried one last time to get a ticket out of Ujung Padang. No flights. The fight with the becak driver proceeded. He was willing to settle for 10,000 now, after I’d offered him 5000, which, despite it being a long ride, was still too much. I walked away; he ran after me. I’d say we engaged in a yelling match, but that would imply both of us were yelling. In reality, of course, it was just me. I cussed him out and asked him the question that had been foremost on my mind: “Don’t you EVER get tired of ripping people off?” A stupid question of course. It’s just business. Besides, he didn’t speak English...
I tossed the 5000 note on the ground, muttered “fuck you” to every offer for another becak, and caught a cab. I managed to find the dive shop, a tiny office, poorly marked, on the waterfront. The guide had the flu, there were no other guides, and this was the only dive shop in town. I returned to the hotel to find my one English-language television channel, MTV, which a head-injured 13-year-old might enjoy, was not working. Despite the fact that I would never watch MTV at home, not even if I owned a TV, this seemed like an inconsolable loss.
I felt like I was in junior high school again, with all its attendant traumas. I felt out-of-place, conspicuous, and vulnerable. Raw. Lonely. Separate. Here I was, 10,000 miles from home, struggling to belong. In the most densely populated part of the world, I was utterly alone. I was in a country whose language I didn't know, I was a foot taller than everyone else, and I was lashing out like a caged beast. What I really wanted was to bridge the gap, close the separation, and feel whole again.
At the end of August, I came home. Not with the glow in my eyes that so many people had commented on before, not with the clarity of what my trip had meant. But home, to the security of my own nest, to the familiarity of my own town, to the love of my friends and family. I still feel a vague sense of separation, though it's not nearly so amplified in familiar surroundings. It's as if something in me has come unmoored. Love is the biggest risk we take, and we do it with the expectation that it will bring us security. Not unlike jumping off a cliff in search of solid ground. Not unlike tromping through Asia alone when you should probably just get a dog and stay at home. Still, I don’t regret the trip, and I don’t regret the relationship. Slowly, step by step, I've continued to find my way.