Sri Lanka is kicking our ass.
Yes, this elegant, soft-spoken, fragrant and verdant island is far tougher than it appears on the surface (and I’m not even going to go into the whole civil war thing here).
How do I know for sure that Sri Lanka is a true badass disguised in a waft of freshly ground spices and swaying palm tress and really quite lovely and kind people? Well, the first clue was when our diminutive guesthouse manager in Kandy complimented Doug on his prodigeous arm hair. I’m fairly certain that’s something Chuck Norris might do.
Thus, I want to introduce you to the many reasons why I know for a fact that Sri Lanka is more of a badass than any of us could ever hope to be.
1. Historically, Sri Lanka (aka Ceylon) seriously whupped some British colonial ass in a big way. The British Garrison Cemetery in Kandy taught me that. One poor fellow in the cemetery, one John Spottiswood Robertson, died from a wild elephant attack (and he wasn’t even the first European to do so- he was the seventh!). Another unfortunate fellow, poor Captain James McGlashan, died slowly and horribly after walking from Trincomalee to Kandy and succumbing to all sorts of fevers (the cemetery paphlet notes that, ‘with reckless disregard of precautions he walked from Trincomalee, drenched with rain, wading, sitting and even sleeping in saturated clothing; not surprisingly he was seized with violent fever and accepted his end with manly fortutude.’) Manly fortitude! Another fellow died from being impaled on a stake after ‘alighting from his horse’. Poor David Findlay’s own house fell on him.
2. Sri Lankans are cartographic ninjas. Think you can read a map? Think that just because you’ve found your way around a million other countries that you can find your way around anywhere with a map? Well, you can’t. Because, as Donovan once said, first there is a mountain and then there isn’t. Or rather, first there is a road and then there isn’t. Or, there wasn’t a road and now there is. Or there was a road but now it goes by a totally different name and is now a cul-de-sac or splits in the middle or suddenly joins up with another road. None of our maps were right. In Anuradhapura, we got lost for over two hours coming back on our bikes from the ancient sacred temples because absolutely nothing (nothing!) was the same as we could see on our Lonely Planet map.
3. And speaking of roads, while many of the main routes are manageable (Colombo to Kandy being quite pleasant and covered in still smooth asphalt), many others are a little less than smooth. The wildly enthusiastic tuktuk drivers happily navigate a mostly potholed road as you hold on for dear life and count your butt bruises in the morning. And it isn’t just bouncy 3-wheeler rides that wreak havoc! When we rented bikes to go around Anuradhapura the other day, I was given an adorable, ancient no-speed town bike best suited to cruising around, say, Amsterdam, rather than the marvellous mix of crumbling asphalt, dusty red dirt, sprays of loose gravel and an awful lot of potholes. I was essentially doing some very intense off road biking on a decidedly on-road bicycle. Also, I should note that the whole pedal of Doug’s bike simply flew off when we were biking back to our guesthouse along a busy road and nobody thought twice. No big deal. They’ve lost pedals before- no sweat! They’re tough! After all, what is the sound of one leg pedalling?
On the subject of pot holes and pavement, I should briefly add that the road to Trincomalee from Anuradhapura is not paved with gold, nor is it paved with pavement, or at least not in any consistent sort of way. It’s a patchwork, shall we say. A melange. A little bit of asphalt here and there, a lot of red dirt, and a fine collection of pot holes of varying depths. Fine, you say. Potholes are manageable. What are you, some kind of soft western wuss? Well, no, but yes, but no, but when the old buses roar forth at great speeds in spite of the potholes, let me tell you, there will be serious bruising and you will, frequently, be lifted about a foot off your seat at regular (yet unexpected!) intervals. My left knee is a testament to this, in all of its purple and yellow glory. The locals on the bus found our bouncing and bruising quite amusing as they stood calmly the whole time, wholly upright in the aisles.
4. They expect you to climb up windswept holy mountains with a rickety railing at best on a cliff face. On the way down from Sigiriya a few days ago, a guard at the Lion’s Feet near the top laughed at my apprehension after having climbed up steep steps whilst buffeted by gale force winds and said the way down is much more dangerous.
Much, much more dangerous. Chortle.
Above the Lion’s Feet was a rickety metal staircase attached to the rock face, that leads up to an even higher and windier peak. The ancients had built what appear to be swimming pools at the top of enormous rocks at the top of this rather high mountain. While we were trembling with fear and crawling up the stairs, whimpering, the locals were bounding up the stairs with babies and frail grandmothers in arms and practically having a picnic at the top (did I mention the gale force winds?)
5. Even in spiritual history, they were tough cookies. What I tell you here is what we were told by the guide at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy so if any of my details are wrong, blame him. I’m pretty sure all the nouns and verbs are correct, even if the rest totally isn’t.
First of all, they got the buddha before the buddha even fully realized he was a buddha. The buddha came to Sri Lanka waaay at the beginning of his bodhisattva status time and when he got here, he found really ugly demons living here (evil and ugly, I think the guide said). When he arrived, his utter loveliness drove those demons away, far away… to Australia. Yep. Bet you didn’t know that Australian Aborigines are actually cast out Sri Lankan demons. Bet they (and their 40,000 years of established history in Australia) didn’t know that either. But still! Anyway, Sri Lanka got the buddha’s tooth after he was cremated, which is apparently very Ark of the Covenantly powerful and wreaks havoc if disturbed or even looked at too hard(ie storms and rain for months, instant death, etc).
Like I said, badass.
6. I am being eaten alive here. My left arm is basically a snack bar for any passing insects, in spite of my best efforts. My left elbow is swollen and hot. My ankles look like I have chicken pox. These bites are more than just an itchy annoyance- on one trek last week, I spontaneously bled exuberantly in my shoes (from the ankle bites) and down my face (I must have had a bite on my upper cheek that I scratched accidentally). I was starting to think I had atypical stigmata. I have yet to see any locals as covered in bites as I am. Like I said, they’re tough. I read somewhere that there are 5 known poisonous snakes here who have thus far not bitten me. We shall see.
7. Folks here (in particular students and religious pilgrims from what I’ve seen) wear brilliant white clothes even in the dust and in the monsoon and they somehow stay white with no sweat stains, no dust nor mud stains and remain perfectly unwrinkled compared to my hideous self. I can’t seem to go a day without getting my clothes caked in mud, soaked in blood or embedded with dirt and dust. Even the little kids look like a laundry detergent ad (the ‘after’ not the ‘before’ part).
End note: we are currently resting and recuperating in a semi posh resort in Nilaveli (a negotiated discount so fierce that I will tell my grand children about it someday), a dozen kilometers from the fabled Trincomalee on the mid-upper east coast. This has been a wonderful trip even though it has kicked our asses fiercely (and fiercely enough this time that our current situation was on doctor’s orders). Sri Lankans, I salute you! You win!