I travelled to Sri Lanka and learnt a lesson of a lifetime – that of keeping faith. Here, I share fours touching stories from the Sri Lankan escapade. They’ve moved me closer to the principle of investing faith in people, beliefs, and self
Travel enriches you, not just externally with experiences, luxury, food, insta-ready pictures, and sorts, but also mentally, morally and principally. On my first solo international backpack trip, I went to Sri Lanka, in February 2016. It has changed the I way I see and perceive things a little. Tiny little country, near identical to India, yet so different, so much to imbibe. Nearly three and a half years later, I can still recall the four most impacting incidences.
SRI LANKA’S FIRST CAPITAL – ANURADHAPURA
I started my journey from the ancient capital of Anuradhapura. Quiet and calm city, it doesn’t have much to offer beyond the well-preserved ruins of an ancient civilisation. It wouldn’t necessarily impress those who’ve seen the likes of Hampi, and have been to a Buddhist country. There’re numerous stone-cut statues, manis, monasteries, and stupas, similar to those found elsewhere too. Albeit being scorchingly hot, the best way of experiencing the ruins is on a bicycle. I had been doing just that, since early morning. It had turned early evening, and I was exhausted, dehydrated, lethargic, and hungry.
Back to the city from the ruins, I parked the bicycle and started strolling. I was searching for a crowded spot to have my first proper meal in the Sri Lanka. Crowded places are local favourites, and a safe bet. On the footpath, I found myself walking a few steps behind a short, bent, white cotton saree-clad, old lady. After a while, she suddenly paused and bent, reaching for something from the path. I couldn’t notice anything littering the way. I must mention that Sri Lanka is spotlessly clean, you can deliver a child on their streets. With her I paused too and watched. Turns out she picked up a fallen leaf and gently parked it in the dustbin near by. I was pleasantly shocked at the gesture.
SRI LANKA – A WAY OF LIVING
Karma, energy, and regard for all things living, are amongst the very dearly held virtues in Buddhism. To see someone follow them as practically as this was a personal first. This still remains one of the first memories that flashes my mind each time I think about the island country. It’s the sheer regard for a living organism and the wisdom of religious teachings that made an easily excusable old lady do an easily excusable deed, and convincingly altered my way of looking at a leaf. As said in The Little Prince – Why is the death of a flower not a matter of great consequences to you adults? I had my Little Prince moment right there.
A MOUNTAIN OF FAITH IN SRI LANKA – THE ADAM’S PEAK
There’s a charming mini England in Sri Lanka, a dear place called Nuwara Eliya. A few hours drive through their tea plantations gets you to the foothills of a sacred conical peak called ‘Sri Pada’. Adam’s Peak, as it’s also called, features on its pinnacle a huge footstep. The Christians agree is Adam’s. Hindus believe Hanuman left it while hopping and carrying the Sanjivani booti for Laxman in Ramayana. And the Buddhists claim it was Buddha’s last step on Earth before he retired to the heavens upon acquiring parinirvana. People usually start the climb featuring over 10,000 steep steps at midnight to reach the top by 5AM. All this, to witness the sun rise to colour the vast canvases of skies with its hues and tones.
Now, anyone who’s been on a hike or a trek knows climbing steps is never easy. It’s further frowned upon even more while descending. It’s exhausting, meant for accidents, causes accentuated physical harm and pain, and is just anatomically inappropriate. I climbed the peak and was stuck in an immovable queue around the top from 3:30 till 7:30AM. After very boring and biting cold four hours, I gave up and decided not to enter the sanctum sanctorum. I anyway had no real will to see the footstep. While in the rush of climbing and the dark of the night, I hadn’t noticed the public around me who were chasing the same post.
THE SUNRISE OF WISDOM + FAITH
The morning brought a different learning. There were wrinkled skinny grampas ferrying new gas cylinders as a source of their daily wages. Young mothers carrying their new-borns, devoted elders visibly in their 80s crawling along unsupported. And, most surprisingly, the dying and diseased being carried by their families on an uncomfortable makeshift berths to the top. And there I stood amidst them, thinking what a champion I was. A champion who’s endured the pain, defeated the lack of caffeine, and sans sleep. A champ who was missing his imaginary crew that he had hired to cheer him on the summit. The crew would take pictures of me, lift me on their shoulder, and sing fables about my journey.
Adam’s Peak, and Sri Lankan denizens had left me wondering. What’s so special about us and why do we think so highly of our minor achievements? What’s with this undying need for appreciation? Why’s there a boastful display of endurance and strength, and crows of gloating about our successes? Because their is something called belief and dedication, and that’s what these old, and physically displaced beings around me had. Not for a social media post, not for someone to take notice of, but, for themself, their past, present, and the future.
In weakness, there’s discovery of self. I wasn’t weak, but in my wish to show strength and joyful celebration of making it to the top, I realised my weakness. I discovered something about myself, and the world around. And when the sun kissed the skies, these locals around me were my silent teachers.
GALLE CHURCH – SRI LANKA’S LIVING UNESCO SITE
By this time, two of my pals and an acquaintance had joined in on my itinerary, divided by varied interest though. While, in Unawatuna, I decided to pack and leave early for Galle for a half-day visit, and for them to meet me there once I was done. Upon reaching Galle, I realised I couldn’t be carrying my rucksack everywhere and I needed to park it, somewhere reliable and safe. Sri Lankans are trustworthy simple people, but aren’t big on money. Beware of their tuktuk drivers though, they are freaking crooks. Locals wouldn’t just do anything in exchange of money, even though it’s awfully simple and within their means. I would’ve happily parked my bag at a local’s house or a shop, which is pretty normal in the country, but the tiny lazy city was still breaking from its slumber.
Walking through a row of houses, en route the fort, I noticed an abruptly placed chapel and went in to admire it. A Sister approached me, and we started chatting about the history of the place, the chapel, and its daily activities. And while at that, I took the chance of asking if she’d be gracious enough to let me park my rucksack there for a few hours, to which she agreed, like it was their primary work.
A LEARNING AWAITS
I imbibed Galle, its small streets, bohemian vibe, artsy cafes, and the mix of cultures in the next few hours before digging in to a colonial-style meal and returning to the chapel. As I went in, there was no one there. One must maintain pin-drop silence at places of worship, but worried that there was not even a person there I even prompted a big ‘Hellllooooo’ to ensure I wasn’t trespassing unknowingly. Minus a few echoes there was nothing.
A tan-painted wooden door at the entrance read a name written in white paint. Common sense suggested the chamber must belong to a person of importance. Few gentle knocks went unanswered. A mid-strength push opened the door, but the room was vacant, set up with a government office-styled glass-topped official table, a head chair and two on the other side. My rucksack sat on one of them. On a schedule to catch an onwards bus, I picked it up, closed the room, and started walking towards the bus terminal.
ONWARDS WITH A REALISATION
While walking away a concoction of thoughts and emotions ran through my head. What made the sister keep my sack? How come the chapel was left unattended in the middle of the day? Why wasn’t it locked? How could I just go in, pick a sack, and walk out, and no one made a single noise or notice? Couldn’t someone else walk in and desecrate the place? Was my sack really secure? How’d they know it was me who took the sack? Wouldn’t there be commotion and panic that the sack was gone? There were so many questions with many possible answers, all wrong but one.
That’s Sri Lanka!! That’s how they work. Our rules and ways of life don’t apply to them, and theirs not to us. Their society is differently influenced and they abide by a different set of beliefs and principles. As I said earlier, money and material things aren’t big here. This incidence made me think of all those times when the guards and locals would ask me to just casually leave the bikes unlocked, or not to sweat about my bags and quickly rush to the restrooms or the snack bars, but I wouldn’t, judging the people with suspicion and finding weirdness in them befriending me and asking me to leave my belonging unattended in a foreign land. I wouldn’t do that in India, why would I in Sri Lanka.
I was in Sri Lanka with Indian thoughts and mentality. Being travellers, we must live and think like locals, not impose our ways of living on them, or judge them and their worlds through the eyes that we see with back in our world.
A FAITH LIKE THIS – HIKKADUWA
Onwards from Galle, we were to make a short visit to a turtle hatchery in Hikkaduwa, and then proceed to Colombo. One of the three others had departed from Galle, and now it was me and my two lady schoolmates. The hatchery outside of the city and a considerable drive along the highway. There were no buses to be found there and we had to return to Hikkaduwa on our own to hail a bus to Colombo. On the highway, on a rainy day, three Indians, two with their rucksacks on, and one with her stroller, were walking down the highway, pleading buses to make an unscheduled stop and take us back to the city. It wasn’t pleasing. And the lady with the stroller had made us miss a few buses, once because she was just slow and the bus won’t wait, other time coz she was busy buying bananas!!
Not in high spirits, we made it to the city, had a quick lunch, and hailed a fully packed bus to Colombo. Needless to say, the stroller-lady was sitting by her self and my other pal and I, disagreeing with her, were sitting by ourselves. In paucity of breath-taking views, I’d usually sleep during bus-rides, but fuming on our misfortunes and giggling on the stupid shenanigans, oddly I was up. Midway, the bus abruptly started slowing down, coming to a near halt, everyone on the left side of the bus’s direction opened their windowpanes while it was raining madly outside, and in near-perfect, practiced, synchronised, and unanimous motion, lifted their bums from their seats, folded their hands, bowed their heads, prayed in whispers for some three seconds, and paused back into life, and the bus went on as usual.
A FAITH WORTH KEEPING
We were in awe of what we just saw, speechless, individually trying to make sense of what happened. It’s usual for people to pray sacredly at even the smallest of shrines in passing in Southern Asia. Indians do that too. But, never in my life and in my travels, have I seen an entire busload, including the driver, do that to a petite easily missable highway shrine. This was unique, even more when you realise that Buddhism and Hinduism were gifted to Sri Lanka by Indians, yet it were us three that were misfits in the bus.
(So much impressive stuff I must’ve missed while being passed-out on those buses)
SRI LANKA + FAITH – A WORLD IN ITS OWN
Coming back to what Anuradhapura taught me, regard, respect, dedication, faith, and the virtues of your religious teachings bind the denizens of Sri Lanka into one. I still question what made them all do that, and with such commitment. I even enquired and tried searching about the shrine they all bowed at, I found no answers, not from the locals, not from my travel media acquaintances. If it was just another shrine, then it is further awe-aspiring.
For my first solo international trip, Sri Lanka came across as a safe bet. It’s identical to India, I wouldn’t be far out of my comfort zone, it’s cheaper than India, culturally diverse, naturally abundant, easy to transit, and two weeks are ample to see the major spots of the country. It ticked all the right boxes. I wore bands I got from Sri Lanka for nearly three years as a reminder of its teachings before I had compulsorily take them off before a surgery. It’s these humble learnings that have left a considerable mark on my memory, and I’ve always cherished them. So much so that 3.5 years later, the visuals are still crystal that it’s this I chose to pen coming out of a writer’s block.