Tangalle-d up in Sri Lanka’s coast

For our second and final week in Sri Lanka, we decided to head to the island’s south coast, where rumors of wild, beautiful beaches backed by lush green palms sounded too good to resist.

As if it were a sign of beautiful things to come, even the lazy, winding train ride there was bursting with gorgeous scenery and cute school kids on their way home from a cricket match (apparently, they even won first place).

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Train to Ella, Sri Lanka

IMG_1115Once on the south coast, we stopped in the town of Tangalle, home to a vast, beautiful beach where we caught our first ever glimpse of the Indian Ocean. It was night when we arrived, and the full moon over the turbulent waves made it all the more beautiful.

For dinner that night, we had brought with us a dinner of chickpeas, red onions, and chilies that we bought from a street vendor for 30 cents. Resourceful vendors in Sri Lanka take old homework or other used paper and fold it into little bags to hold the food – my dinner plate consisted of someone’s old medical lesson; Scott’s was written in Sinhalese– can anyone translate for us?

IMG_1122Dinner:

Tangalle, Sri Lanka

Tangalle beach at daybreak:

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“Tangalle”, or as I like to call it, “where seashell collectors go to die”:

The beach at Tangalle was far too dangerous to swim, due to monstrous waves and a steep shore break, so we spent just one night and moved on to the beach town of Mirissa.

Mirissa was a beautiful, tiny coastal village with not much to do other than surf, eat good curries, and relax on the beach. Unfortunately, our blog post about Mirissa got inadvertently deleted one day, so some pictures will have to suffice:

The homestay that we stayed at put out a sign one day to greet us with what they thought was an American saying. It read: G’day Mr. Scotte and Mrs. StephanieIMG_1153 IMG_1181 IMG_1177  IMG_1165

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Rolling in the Sri Lankan Hills

Pulling into the ground transport hub outside Colombo, Sri Lanka was a breath of exhausty, dusty, body-odorous air. We bumped our way through crowds of hawkers and honking tuk-tuks to find our way to the correct repurposed school bus and lumbered ourselves in, cramming – bags and all – into a one-and-a-half person wide seat to wait for the bus to load. There we sat in the stifling heat, unsure of when the driver would show, whether we were on the right bus, or even how soon the bus would depart.

Transport days… we’ve come to learn not to judge any place by its first appearances, and Sri Lanka was proving no different. Alas, the time had come for a change of scenery for us and it was thrilling to be out of our comfort zone again – back on the road and experiencing something new – just the reason we left home in the first place!

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The differences were all around, and helped to warm the mood.

The colors! Outside our window was a legitimate mess of activity, like a toddler’s plate at Thanksgiving. Women bustled around the station draped and tucked into vivid saris, the men in patterned lunghi kilts and linen collared shirts. Dahl curries stewed in the shop-fronts alongside towers of roti samosas filled with starchy veggies, yellow-orange turmeric, cumin. Replacing the motorcycle-pulled tuk-tuks we’d come to know well in Cambodia were sleek, egg-shaped “three-wheelers”, painted black, green, yellow, blue, sometimes tan.

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IMG_0839Soon enough, our bus driver hopped up and started the engine. Off we were to Kandy, a historic and cultural hub of the country. Along the way, deep blue skies and banana trees blurred together out our window as everyone on the road, especially the bus drivers, treated the narrow rural roads like a race course and the traffic lanes like a naive suggestion. Before long, we were in bustling Kandy negotiating a fare with a 3-wheeler driver who would take us to our guesthouse, Sevana.

Sevana was a welcome and quiet retreat from the streets outside. We checked into our room, tossed our bags on the floor, and gazed out the screen window of our room… “Where the heck are we…?”

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Tea Plantations, Haputale, Sri Lanka

Throughout our time in Sri Lanka, that “where the…” feeling never really went away – it was quite a change from the scenes we’d grown used to in Southeast Asia.

We stayed long enough in Kandy just to get our Indian visas submitted, which was an adventure in and of itself– one frought with overly-picky Indian visa officials (there’s a shadow behind Steph’s ear in her application photo? Go get a new one!), multiple trips to the internet cafe next to the visa office, the discovery that the U.S. had made an error on Steph’s passport which the Indian officials kindly pointed out to her, our encounters with extreme gender inequality with security guards who only search/interrogate women, and a Muslim man who, upon learning we were American, asked us if we were afraid of his beard!

Feeling we’d been slung through the wringer at the visa office, we did little else in Kandy than wander the city for an afternoon or two, and try some delicous new foods, such as the rotis and curries at Kandy Muslim Hotel (which like most “hotels” in Sri Lanka, aren’t hotels at all, but restaurants).

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Nearing the end of our lunch at Kandy Muslim Hotel, we were encouraged to eat faster, faster, then as-fast-as-possible and (as kindly as possible) GET OUT!– they were closing the entire restaurant, as they do every day at 12:30, for their afternoon call to prayer. The patrons filed out, the metal security door was pulled down tight, and twenty minutes later, they were open for business again.

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While in Kandy we also toured the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, which holds one of the teeth of the Buddha, apparently plucked/stolen from his cremation pyre and passed down through generations.

IMG_0815Visitors to the temple aren’t able to see the actual tooth itself (it sits inside the smallest of 5 gold boxes, with each smaller box fitting inside the next like a Russian doll), but we did walk by its holding shrine to find hundreds of devotees that had made the pilgrimage to worship before it.

IMG_0820…and gawk at the uninvited patrons in the trees outside:

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Before long, we were rumbling out of Kandy and into the mountains aboard what quickly became one of our favorite traits of Sri Lanka: the railways. Trains in Sri Lanka felt like more of a forum for social gathering than a mere means of transportation: families laugh and toy with each other, young kids hang out the windows and scream when the train passes through a tunnel, vendors hawk wadi-wadi and cups of chai to travelers, all while crossing through and towering over the most awe-inspiring scenery.

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[Women in saris, waiting for a train…]

IMG_0979The only downside it seems is that the trains can get crowded– very crowded.

[fighting to get into the 2nd class train..]

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IMG_0877That first train into the Hill Country arrived packed to the gills – we grabbed our bags, held our breaths, and pushed our way into the packed car. But we had only been standing in the train car for about 30 seconds when a woman offered Steph her seat. Steph was eventually forced to sit despite repeated polite refusals, and before long we were part of her family (complete with little kids crawling all over Steph’s lap and all of us sharing a bag of chili-spiced olives). The dad took pleasure in my request for him to teach us some Sinhalese, perhaps too much… We didn’t know how to ask how much something costs, but we could say “you are beautiful”, “what is your telephone number?”, and “I love you; do you love me?”  Hmm.

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That train dropped us in Hatten. Our friends from the train helped us off, and in an early show of Sri Lankan hospitality, were the first of many to give us their phone number, even offering to pick us up from the train station if we ever needed a lift! In Hatten, we made a short and memorable stop for a dawn hike up Sri Pada. From there, we took another train, where we met a man named K.I., a school principal who was on his way back home after visiting a friend. We spent the afternoon chatting with him at the train station and later on the train itself, pointing out for us various natural landmarks and waterfalls of his beautiful part of the country.

Haputale, Sri Lanka

Just before the train reached K.I.’s stop, he bought us all a round of banana bubble gum from the train vendor, gave us his telephone number, and promised to check in with us later.

IMG_0986Several stops past K.I.’s house, we reached Haputale and settled into our guesthouse – just in time to catch a call from K.I., making sure we had made it. From that day, we received a call from K.I. every day until we left Sri Lanka. Given the language barrier, our conversations were pretty rudimentary, and nearly identical from day to day, but they somehow left us laughing every time he called and looking forward to hearing from him again.

In Haputale we stayed at a small family-run guesthouse where we were brought in as one their own – indeed, the father’s belief in tough love applied to us as much as it applied to his kids and we were politely scolded if we showed up to dinner a little late… which we never were again… after the first time.

[The view from our room:]

Haputale, Sri Lanka

IMG_1069His wife was an amazing cook, and every night she would let us join her in her kitchen as she prepared our dinner, where she taught us to cook homemade coconut sambal, dal curry, string hoppers, Sri Lankan-style okra, deviled potatoes, squash curry….

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Impromptu cooking class in Haputale

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Setting out to explore Haputale the next day, we learned that the town is home to one of many British tea plantations that still thrive here and churn out Sri Lanka’s #1 export. We spent 5 days in Haputale, aimlessly walking the hills of the tea plantations, occasionally joining the locals on their walks home down the lonely train tracks.

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Haputale, Sri Lanka

Tea Plantations, Haputale, Sri Lanka

Haputale, Sri Lanka

Tea Plantations, Haputale, Sri Lanka

It would be fair to say we did little more than go on long walks during our 5 days in Haputale – but it wasn’t for lack of trying – on our first day we walked 3 miles to explore an old Benedictine monastery in the area, just to find that it was closed. We were later told that it is only open to visitors on national holidays, and lucky for us there would be such a holiday coming up in just 2 days. By the time the national holiday arrived, we’d decided to forgo the monastery altogether and visit one of the tea factories instead, so we hopped on a rickety old bus that felt like it would shake itself apart any second and traveled 30 minutes to the tea factory, and what do you know?

Haputale, Sri Lanka

Closed! Apparently, the tea factory is open every day of the year except on national holidays.

Our last day in Haputale, we decided that we really had to “do” at least one activity in our time there, given that everything else had been closed: we would visit Diyaluma waterfall. Being the second tallest waterfall in Sri Lanka at almost 600 feet tall, we agreed to take a bus over an hour and a half each way just to check it out. I can’t exactly say it was “closed”, but let’s just say that its faucet wasn’t exactly “open” all the way at this time of year. It was pretty, but not the kind of thing worth spending all day trying to visit.

Haputale, Sri Lanka

Before we could leave the town, Haputale had one more trick up its sleeve for us it seemed. While walking the train tracks one day, we decided that we wanted to try to smash a coin on the train tracks– something Steph had never done! Since trains are very infrequent, we were surprised to see a train heading our way halfway through our walk. Quickly, we put the coin on the track, giggling like 5 year olds, and stepped back to watch the magic unfold…

Once again, Haputale had other plans for us…

It was time to move on, but suffice it to say, we really enjoyed Haputale, in particular, the lush rolling hills that surrounded the dusty town itself.

Tea Plantations, Haputale, Sri Lanka

Haputale, Sri Lanka

Haputale, Sri Lanka

A pilgrimage to Sri Pada, Sri Lanka

It’s a few minutes after midnight, and the shopkeepers are busying themselves arranging winter coats and hats; frying up samosas, chapatis, pakoras; readying their wares for the stream of pilgrims who are preparing for the long, cold journey ahead.

In the dark, we buy some provisions ourselves and take a minute to chat with the young shopkeeper. “Have you ever climbed Sri Pada?” Scott asks, motioning to the black peak looming behind us in the distance. He laughs, “No…it looks very hard, too high,” and we set off chuckling and unfazed by his warning, nibbling away at our much-needed fuel.

IMG_0889We’re here to climb the mountain known as Sri Pada (translating directly to “Sacred Footprint”) or “Adam’s Peak,” as it’s more commonly known in English. Sri Pada, being one of few pilgrimage sites that is revered by 4 major religions worldwide, is said to be one of the most sacred places on earth. Looming over 7,000 feet above the Sri Lankan jungle, Sri Pada’s lofty heights appear to reach up toward the heavens, its sides being nearly vertical in places. On its summit, a large “footprint” (over 5 feet long) imprinted on a boulder marks the reason for Sri Pada’s sacredness: Buddhists say it is the footprint of Lord Buddha himself, left during his third visit to Sri Lanka over 2500 years ago; Hindus say the footprint is that of Lord Shiva; Muslims and Christians claim that it is that of Adam, formed when he was sent to earth and placed in Sri Lanka, or “Eden”. (Those who are more agnostically-inclined might be interested to know that Sri Pada is also known as the place that “butterflies go to die,” meaning that, really, one of the above categories should cover just about everyone except for the very hardest of hearts…:)) Whatever the reason people have had for visiting the mountain, pilgrims from around the world have been climbing to its summit for over a thousand years, ever since the footprint was discovered in 851 AD. Since then, its fame has been carried around the planet, its summit being tackled by such famous characters as Marco Polo and Alexander The Great. Today, we’re here to do the same.

[Sri Pada in the distance:]

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[Aerial shot of Sri Pada at daytime, borrowed from Wikipedia:]

We’re here in the middle of Sri Pada climbing season, and everyone packed onto our train (and later, bus) on the long journey to the town of Hatton was on their way to make the arduous climb. Everyone was laughing, singing, drumming on the doors, happy to be making another pilgrimage up the sacred mountain. Although all Sri Lankans are expected to climb the mountain at least once in his or her lifetime, there is merit gained for each individual time a pilgrim reaches the summit. A man we met on the train told us that he has climbed Sri Pada three times before, but for many of the older people, it was their 10, 15, even 20th time.

After thanking the shop owner for the snacks, we begin to wind our way out of town, walking past countless brightly-lit storefronts selling everything from fake flower offerings to stuffed animals (?) to high-energy sweets and hand-sewn Santa hats (?).

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At the true start of the climb, nestled at the base of the mountain, we reach a bell tower that pilgrims must ring once for each time they have made the pilgrimage to climb Sri Pada. Scott and I each ring the bell once, and we’re joined by a Buddhist monk who whispers a prayer of safety and good luck for each of us, before tying a white string around our wrists in blessing.

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The climb up the mountain is gradual at first, and lights have been strung up along the trail to light our way. We pass various “pilgrim’s rest” stops, which are nothing more than a cement floor with a tin roof overhead, where hundreds of people lie on newspapers or wrapped in blankets, catching some sleep before (or after) the long climb. Others kneel in prayer in front of enormous Buddha statues or Hindu temples, asking for a safe and rewarding journey.

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The trail seems abandoned and lonely at first, but we’re gradually joined by more and more people, as we are all trying to reach the summit before sunrise– a solid 6 hours away. To hike the mountain after the sun rises is far too hot, and to reach the top too early before sunrise is too cold, when the lofty summit feels close to freezing.

The trail begins to climb, higher, higher, and we can occasionally steal glances at the fully-lit trail winding its way up the mountain.

IMG_0902Countless resting places line the trail all the way to the summit, selling much-needed vegetable rotis and a hot cups of milk tea to weary travelers.

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After several hours of continuous stair-climbing, the path narrows and steepens, and each new step takes tremendous energy. We’re joined by entire families walking hand-in-hand up the sacred mountain, by young couples carrying their babies to the top for its first pilgrimage, by very old men and women who must have climbed the peak countless times before. Many of the older pilgrims are dressed in all white and are barefoot, there being that much more merit gained for making the arduous climb this way. At one point, we find ourselves in the middle of a group of young men whose beautiful call-and-response chanting –”Devindu, api enava” (“God, we are coming”)– helps propel us along to the top.

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Eventually we reach Idikatu Pana, the steepest, most difficult point in the climb, where the stairs are nearly vertical. We pass by an old woman, folded in half at the waist, pulling herself up and up each step by the metal handrail; she still has a long way to go. Another woman is draped across the handrail in exhaustion, clinging to it to remain standing, as her family encourages her to take just one more step, one more step. Countless others are sitting and resting on the steps, their heads buried in their knees as they catch a few minutes sleep.

We eventually decide to pull over for a few minutes rest, not so much out of exhaustion but out of apprehension about making it to the freezing summit too long before sunrise. Seeing me resting on the side of the trail, an old woman in a white sarong with long gray hair grabs my hand, pulls me to my feet, and literally drags me up the mountain for a few hundred feet, saying, “Come, come, let’s go. Sri Pada, we climb. Come, come.”

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[Last shop selling flower offerings before the top:]

IMG_0933As we near the top, some 6 hours of near-vertical climbing later, the crowd becomes very dense. Cold and gridlocked on the side of the mountain, we worry we won’t reach the summit before sunrise, and it takes nearly an hour to cover the last 30 feet of the climb. We finally reach the vertigo-inducing summit a mere 2-3 minutes before the sun breaks through the cloud layer far, far below us. The bulging crowd, all clinging for space at the top, becomes silent, and all that can be heard is the violent flapping of the Buddhist prayer flags strung out above us.

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IMG_0949Behind us, Buddhists pay silent respects to the holy footprint, as the Hindus carry out a ceremony of their own only a few yards away. Together, we become witness to a spectacle of colors seemingly tossed across the infinite sky before us, and I know why each group has claimed this scared site as their own.
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The climb down the mountain is dramatically more crowded and difficult than the climb up, and my legs take on a jerky, uncontrollable motion for the long journey downwards. We pass a very elderly man being helped down each step by his wife, who holds his elbow in support; he is crying in pain with each step that he takes. In stark contrast, porters wearing sarongs and turbans run up and down the mountain now that daylight has broken, carrying full tanks of gas hoisted on their shoulders to the rest stops that are now far above us. I fall somewhere in the middle– not yet crying but also certainly not running.

We manage to reach the town again by 9:30 in the morning– a full 9 hours since we first set out last night. The odd little 9 year old who apparently runs our guesthouse literally pushes us out of our room before our 10am check-out, screaming “The new guests are coming! The guests, they are coming!!” Tired and discombobulated, we grab our bags, hobble on to the next bus out of town, and fall fast asleep.

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We were sore for at least the next 5 days, with going down stairs not just being difficult, but damn-near impossible– I had to go down backwards anytime we reached a staircase (which was oddly quite often) and hold my body weight up by my arms, using the railing. Whenever I caught a funny glance from someone as I hobbled down a set of stairs backwards, one foot at a time, I had nothing more to do than simply pat my thighs and call out “Sri Pada!”, when their expression would change from bemusement to surprise to finally, respect.

In our short time at the top of Sri Pada, I saw neither the famed sacred footprint nor the perfect triangle of Sri Pada’s shadow that is supposedly cast by the mountain shortly after sunrise (it was far too crowded to move around). But as I turned my back on the light show taking place before us and faced into the crowd, I did see something spectacular: the smiling faces of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jews, (and perhaps some butterfly collectors?) all upturned as one, offering collective praise to the heavens splashed out across the beautiful blue sky before us.

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