We must risk delight. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world.- Jack Gilbert
I’ve been thinking a lot about joy lately, especially as the current political climate continues to relentlessly break my heart, and since reading Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate’ has been giving me some restless nights. All I can figure is the only way to combat the phase we’re in now is to speak up where it matters, to love with more depth, to be even kinder, and to stubbornly enjoy every little moment of joy we can find. Sri Lanka provided the perfect opportunity to practice gladness, it really was a perfect 12 day trip.
We decided the best way to travel would be by motorbike, sharing one between the two of us for only $6 a day. Our time on the Batmobile in Vietnam had turned us into hardened motorbike veterans, but it turned out steeling ourselves was totally unnecessary. At stoplights without fail the driver next to us would lean over to welcome us to Sri Lanka or simply smile, giving us a friendly wave. There was a refreshing lack of rubbish on the side of the road, and no incessant honking of horns. As for similarities to Vietnam, families would still pile six deep on motorbikes, but everyone actually wore a helmet. We were also stopped by the fuzz a couple times, but unlike the attempted briberies in Vietnam, we were instead asked about our country of origin and marital status, thanked for not speeding, and waved on our way. Oh, and even with a nicer bike, my butt still would get ridiculously sore by the end of a long day.
Our first meal in country set the bar pretty high, a breakfast of steaming yellow dahl eaten with egg hoppers, a crispy curved bread bowl made from coconut flower, and dense, round, savory cakes. These were accompanied on the side by rolled crepe-like burritos filled with honey and shaved coconut, alongside endless refills of rich, milky sweet tea. Bellies full we started a boiling four hour drive, where a 1.5 liter bottle of cold soda water over lunch might have actually saved our lives, at last arriving in Sigiriya. We opted to save $40 by skipping the famous rock and instead paid $4 to climb up its neighbor, Pidurangala. The hike itself was pretty steep, up narrow, crumbling steps, past a sleepy brick Buddha, and a final scramble up boulder piles to the top. In addition to a perfect view of Sigiriya Rock, there was actual wilderness as far as the eye could see in every direction, minus an occasional cell tower. Eventually rumbles of thunder sent us scurrying down, and we managed to arrive back at our guesthouse just as rain started to bucket down and the power went out. We spent the night playing cards with our headlamps as the sky crackled orange and rain beat down on the tin roof overhead.
Thanks to some beta from a German road biker, we changed plans and drove out of our way to cross through Maduruoya National Park, what wound up being my favorite day of the trip. With no entrance fee or ranger station, we navigated around on our own, finding families of water buffalo neck deep in mud puddles, massive painted storks and plenty of peacocks with tail feathers twice as long as their bodies. Eventually we started to see elephant crossing signs, most of them pushed over, I like to think by the elephants themselves. We managed to see three separate herds, at one point climbing up a little hill for a better view only to find several tiny babies hidden in the tall grass below, close enough to hear their ears flapping and the sound of the grass being pulled up by their trunks. Looming clouds and claps of thunder motivated us to carry on towards Blue Ridge Lake Guesthouse, our favorite stay of the trip. The evening was spent watching the sunset over the lake while sipping tea and swatting at the fattest mosquitos I’d ever seen.
The next morning I woke up in time to watch kids in freshly starched white uniforms with perfectly plaited hair crossing in front of the lake on their way to school. For breakfast we were presented with a home cooked meal of string hoppers and curry, thin rice noodles rolled up into little balls, a surprisingly effective vessel for soaking up sauce. We tried to find more elephants back in the park, but by the time we got there the heat already had them hiding in the shade. Instead, we visited a crumbling monastery atop a massive boulder where the nicest man from Negombo showed us around, explaining how he had been there many times and it was his favorite place on earth. It wasn’t hard to see why, the views were incredible, and tiny puppies followed us around as we walked past crumbling walls and scrambled up boulders.
Sri Lanka, more than anywhere else I have been, is the land of tuk tuks. They were everywhere, usually decked out in bright colors with bunches of fake grapes hanging from the review mirror or sometimes disco lights, and plenty of bumper stickers pasted across the back. My favorite phrases spotted included: Naughty Boy; Beauty is only skin deep; Tell the truth and spite the devil; My life, my rules; Silence prevails in our love; and Devil May Care. Each little town we passed through had its name written in Tamil, Sinhala and English, and upon entering we would drive past ladies huddled together under colorful umbrellas, both men and women wrapping fabric around their waists like sarongs, making me feel envious of a wardrobe with such comfort and ease. While I’ve been known to swoon over a tree or two, Sri Lankan trees brought my adulation to a whole new level. We passed an unbelievable amount of massive banyan trees and strangler figs with massive melting roots and covered with vines, often with a ribbon tied around it (to indicate the presence of spirits, I was told) or a shrine to either Ganesha or Buddha nestled at the base.
Our drive took us past plenty of placid lakes alongside brightly painted houses in orange, green, yellow and pink, or sometimes all of the above. Eventually we began winding up mountain passes, the air growing cooler, the landscape slowly transforming into tea plantations and eucalyptus forests. What we thought would be a three hour drive wound up being six thanks to a terrible quality road, but time passed by quickly with the help of each tiny mountain town we passed through, where we felt like celebrities as people would run alongside our bike or wave from their porches, losing their minds when we would wave back at them. At last we reached Ella, and even with the delay after an easy climb we still managed to catch the sunset at Little Adam’s Peak. The sky around us turned a moody blue as we watched the mist roll in over emerald hills, distorted chanting rising up from the valley below.
I actually managed to drag myself out of bed at 5:30 the next morning, a surprise since mornings aren’t really my ‘thing.’ Unfortunately we weren’t able to find the start of the trek to Ella’s Rock and instead ended up at the viewpoint for Nine Arch Bridge sipping Ceylon tea, before a massive breakfast of egg curry, potato stew, rice and papaya at our hostel. We broke up the long drive past endless tea estates with a stop in Haputhale to see Lipton’s Seat, the favorite viewpoint of the tea mogul. Tiny, cramped restaurants with no menu to speak of continued to crush it every lunch- for $2 we would get the royal treatment, a big bowl of rice and tons of little bowls of veggies prepared in different ways, refilled often. In the afternoon we cut through Horton Plains National Park, enjoying the peaceful pine forests while racing the rain, once again arriving at our guesthouse in Maskeliya right as the rain began to drum down.
After a 2:30am wake up we toyed with the idea of skipping Adam’s Peak entirely but eventually dragged ourselves out the door, driving through chilly darkness past kids waiting in uniforms for the bus, starting hiking around 3:45am. Muslims and Christians say the shrine over a footprint at the top of the mountain was Adam’s first step out after he was cast out of the garden of Eden, whereas Hindus say it was made by Shiva in his dance to create the world, and Buddhists claim Buddha made the footprint after enlightenment. To reach the top you have to climb nearly 6000 steps- cement, brick, stone, steep, vertical, child-sized, wide, lunging- I suffered up them all. We at last reached the top around 6:15am, partly because the last 40 minutes was spent basically cued up with a huge crowd. Distant thunderheads glowed cotton candy pink, and clouds below packed themselves like cotton around lowlying foothills. Drums beat while people prayed, lighting candles and incense, monks chanting softly in from inside. I didn’t actually see the footprint that makes the mountain the holiest site in Sri Lanka, skipping waiting in line in an effort to beat some of the crowds on the way down, but my vote is for Adam, since the landscape, now visible in the rapidly growing light, did look like a sort of Eden.
On our way to Udawalawe National Park the next day we discovered ‘short eats,’ little savory pastries in a glass case (my favorite was the flaky triangles stuffed with curried vegetables) that we had somehow accidentally ignored at every other restaurant. After checking in we headed over to the Elephant Transit Home for feeding time. Watching forty baby elephants running out for food like giant gangly puppies, ears flopping, tripping over their own trunks, was just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. The next morning our safari started at a painful 5am, piling into a raised jeep for a bumpy five hour trip. Later that day we reunited with the sea in Tangalle, before continuing up the coast to Weligama, where we were greeted by curious purple-faced langurs peering down from the roof of our guesthouse. That night was a holiday in honor of the full moon, and we watched it rise rosy pink from across the bay, colorful boats bobbing in the harbor. We belatedly celebrated climbing Adam’s Peak over our first beer of the trip at the cliff top Tiki Bar, waves crashing as the moonlight danced on the water below.
The next day was the first day we had zero concrete plans and we took full advantage, lazing around our guesthouse backyard in stripped hammocks until our grumbling stomaches lured us into town. Later we rented foam surfboards, popping up easily on nearly every wave we tried to catch. That night we enjoyed more short eats and another Tiki Bar beer before an early night, a perfect lazy day.
The next morning we opted to go with a slightly more expensive company for whale watching, as we had both found ourselves totally enamored with the owner after meeting him in town the day before. Setting off with said whale whisperer, we managed to see plenty of blue whales, the largest mammals on earth. We continued our drive up the coast, past fisherman with wide brimmed hats delicately perched on stilts high above the water, casually casting their lines. We stopped in Galle to check out the Portuguese architecture, snacking on some egg roti on the old fort wall and stretching our legs. While leaving we inadvertently got caught in a Buona Vistian Pride parade, catching a free concert of what sounded like Sri Lankan mariachi music while sipping fresh squeezed orange juice. Once the traffic cleared we stopped at a gas station to buy some betel nut, the answer to why nearly everyone we’d met had stained red teeth. Returning to our beach hut for the night, we stood calf deep in the waves, wrapping the betel nut in a banana leaf along with a little tobacco and a pinch of lime. Chewing through that mess was more difficult than it looked, and we stood there giggling and spitting great gobs of reddish orange juice as a great red ball of sun sank slowly below the horizon.
I woke up in the morning and immediately jumped in the ocean to soothe my itchy mosquito bites, and after a quick breakfast we drove a short hour up the coast, past more pristine beaches and tsunami memorials. Our last day we couldn’t outrun the rain any longer, and so we spent a lazy afternoon trying to wrap our minds around the idea of heading back to work the next day. To quote Jenny Slate, ‘It is a very lucky thing if you can have a life experience that makes you ‘you’ again or fresh again or just simply content,’ and I feel very lucky to have found all those things in my short time in Sri Lanka.