The Natural Spirit – A Sri Lankan Pilgrimage Story

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The globe spun, perched on the corner of my desk. My finger pressed down hard, bringing the spinning to an end. Hidden below my digit was the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, a small island that had recently emerged from 26 years of civil war. Maybe it was living in Egypt, playing witness to the benignity of the day-to-day during a revolution, or maybe it was my youthful incredulity that kept me from spinning again. I let the thought bubble in my head, piecing together the little of what I knew about the small country. Before I knew that my brain had organized the thought, I heard my lips say, “So what about Sri Lanka?”

Days later as we sat elbows deep in flight documents and tentative itineraries, the excitement of exploring a relatively untouched country clouded any fears of instability. Instability was a Tuesday in Cairo during 2013; by comparison Sri Lanka seemed like a Caribbean cruise destination, plotted and predictable.

When I disembarked in Colombo, I realized I had gone from dry-heat to humid-heat, and I immediately knew which I preferred. Stepping out the front doors of the small airport, sweat beaded on my forehead and trickled down my spine. My friend Jeff had arrived a few days earlier and came strolling up to us in the mid-morning sun, “Welcome to the pressure cooker!” he bellowed as we piled bags into the back of an old micro-van.

We snaked our way through the crowded city streets and onto country roads. We were headed to our first destination, a mountain shrouded in myth and, as we would later discover, mist. It was early afternoon when we pulled into the driveway of Slightly Chilled Guesthouse in Hatton, at the base of Adam’s Peak. I walked through the doors expecting Bob Marley and dreaded travellers; instead there were marginally functional air conditioners.

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In preparation for the next day’s early morning slog up 5000 steps to the summit of Adam’s Peak, we went out into the surrounding tea plantations to look around and work in our hiking boots. Within half an hour, the humidity decided to break into monsoon rains. My new hiking boots were turning into little lakes. So, with my camera stowed, we ran for cover in a curry house. What an excellent choice. It was during this downpour that I was first introduced to the possibilities of Sri Lankan cuisine, possibilities that have me salivating even now.   After hours of delight, we made our way back to Slightly Chilled and hung out our soaked gear in hopes of an overnight drying miracle.

My Nokia phone exploded to life at 2am. I bounced from bed, only to feel the gurgling curry reassert itself. With trepidation, I moved to inspect my soaked boots. Still soaked. Super. I channelled my inner MacGyver, emptied a few plastic shopping bags of underwear, put my feet inside, and pulled on my boots. All set.

I met my friends upstairs for coffee, crepes, and passionfruit. We ate what we could and funnelled out the front door. As we trudged off into the dark, we soon joined a throng of people headed in the same direction. There were families with small children and old grandparents, groups of young Buddhist monks, and foreign explorers. Together we plodded along in the dark to the foot of Adam’s Peak where a giant statue of a reclining Buddha rested. With a look back at my friends, I told them I would see them at the top. The 5,000 steps that separated me from the peak of the famed mountain, started to slip by. My 6 foot 7 frame, balanced on two exceptionally long legs, powered up the stairs. My heart started pounding harder as the air thinned and my breathing accelerated. All around me, people climbed with their own sense of purpose pushing them to the peak.

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In my own life, I’ve struggled with spirituality and what that really means. In a society that aspires to own things and acquire wealth, it can be hard to find a soul. Thankfully, I wasn’t climbing an office tower in Toronto but rather, one of those rare places on Earth that millions of people agree is important. Religious groups aren’t known for agreeing on differing doctrine but Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists alike believe that the 6 foot tall boulder sitting on the summit of Adam’s Peak is a footprint. Reaching consensus on whose footprint, however, is more difficult. For Christians and Muslims, the footprint is that of Adam, the site where he landed on Earth after being cast from the Garden of Eden by an angry God. For Buddhists, the footprint is that of the Buddha, left behind from when he visited the Buddhist deity Saman on Sri Lanka. And for Tamil Hindus, it is believed to be the footprint of Lord Shiva, the auspicious one.

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As I climbed, I wondered who the pilgrims around me believed in. Whose footprint were they hiking to see? Which God was awaiting them at the end of their climb? I wasn’t climbing in duty to a deity but rather as an observer, a student of all religions and member to none. This sense of having no defined beliefs filled me as I climbed, wondering about the faiths of those around me. I felt like I was siphoning off bits and pieces from the pilgrims, attaining my own spiritual fulfillment through the appreciation of their struggle and devotion.

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By this time, my Nike workout shirt was drenched in sweat. My grey hoodie was starting to soak up the excess, so I knew I had to stop. Along the stairs were small shops, serving tea and snacks to the weary. I hopped off the stairs and headed for the back of the shop and ordered a piping hot tea. I peeled off my soaking shirt and rung it out before putting it back on. I sipped at the boiling tea and felt my achy body warm.

My wristwatch said 3:50am. The sun was meant to rise just before 6. I still had a long way to go and the foot traffic was intensifying. As I left the shop and rejoined the pilgrims, I saw my friends marching up behind me. We reunited and prepared to push up the final flights of stairs. We spun around a snake in the stairs and come face to face with a queue a few thousand pilgrims deep. The lineup was barely moving. We stood shoulder to shoulder as people began to sit down, crowding the stairs even more than before. By this point, we were racing the sun and it wouldn’t be long before it splashed into the sky. From where we were, there was no end to the line, so we decided to act.

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Bouncing over a barrier, we raced up alongside the staircase, crashing through bushes and bumping bystanders in our final assault on Adam’s Peak. We constantly had to pick up new trails, dodging people resigned to waiting inconveniently on the narrow stairs. Just as the first shards of sunlight broke the night sky, we arrived at the gates, filtering pilgrims towards the peak. Surrounded on all sides we waded through the crowd using my tall frame as a marker to stay together. We pushed towards an overhanging ledge with an uninterrupted view of the valleys below and mountains beyond. The ledge teased my fingertips as I extended out of the crowd and onto the ledge. Perched above the pilgrims, I wrapped myself in my damp grey hoodie to stave off the chill spreading from my sweat soaked clothes. Standing stoically behind me, a Buddhist monk garbed in glowing orange gazed out over the mass of bodies. The sun began to break over the horizon, slowly reeled in from the nothingness of night.  Heavy clouds filled with dense humidity hung low in the valleys, lending itself perfectly to the sensation of being perched on a peak above the world. Slow, methodical drumbeats and ringing bells filled the morning air as a steady stream of pilgrims pushed on for their moment at the top. Sun shot streaks of pink, yellow, orange and red splashed wildly across the sky.

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Time must have continued to tick by because soon the sun was high in the morning sky. In my transfixed state, I was a captive in the eye of a spiritual storm swirling around me, stemming from several religious rites. My adventure to the peak was not intended to earn favour with the recipient of my faith. I was there to observe, take photos and consider the lives of those around me. But what I found was a myriad of perspectives, exercising their own truths on the shared summit. It didn’t matter why you were there or which God you were trying to please. The pull of Adam’s Peak is the shared human experience. Climbing, sweating, struggling, and remaining determined in the face of adversity is how we measure our spirit. Driving yourself to be better and your life to be fuller than it was the day before is the path to personal progress. When we continue to seek out the unknown and to challenge the untested, we uncover our hardwired drive to live, our natural spirituality.

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The Battle of Night and Day

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The Battle of Night and Day

After hours of putting one foot in front of the other, stomping up stairs, I was nearing my goal. I was in southern Sri Lanka and a holy pilgrimage had pulled me out of bed in the middle of the night. I was surrounded by the faithful, making their climb to the top of Adam’s Peak in duty to their deities. But the only absolution I sought, was with the rising sun. Soon, the darkness began to break and shapes came into focus across the hazy horizon. The eternal battle between night and day waned, as fiery light shattered the blackened battlefield.

Moments and Memories

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Moments and Memories

My legs were aching as I lunged down to take two steps at a time. I’d been climbing stairs since 2 am with only a few samosas to keep me going. Thankfully, the descent was easier than the climb, because leaving Adam’s Peak behind wasn’t.

My memory is of a rising sun splashing colours across the sky like a drunk Jackson Pollock while the sounds of Buddhists banging on drums and clanging bells rang in my ears, I stopped to look around me. Beside me, in front of me, and behind me were hundreds of people all with sunlight and smiles beaming off their faces.

We live our lives through moments that fleet instantly into memories. When we stop to soak in our surroundings, take time to absorb it all, the moment we’re in becomes a memory, marked in time and in thought.

Together, we shared that moment that is now my memory. They were on the final steps of their spiritual pilgrimage, while I was just beginning my Sri Lankan adventure.

The Musical Mystery

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The Musical Mystery

It was the music that lead me. I was exploring the old Dutch trading post of Galle in southern Sri Lanka when I heard it. The rhythmic banging of drums accompanied with beautiful melodies echoed off the stone walls and cobblestone paths.

At first it was faint and in the distance, but as I followed my ears, the music became more clear. I picked my way through an old building where I found a set of stairs with at least a hundred cast off shoes at the bottom. Combining this telling clue with my increased proximity to the source of the music, I knew I was close. I moved up the stairs quickly to find a circle of Sri Lankan mothers. They turned to inspect me but were soon drawn back to the spectacle at hand. Sons and daughters, dancing and singing.

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I had found my source, a dance class of at least 50 young Sri Lankan teenagers, all smiling and focused on the class at hand. Mystery solved.

The Bodily Testament

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The Bodily Testament

“He’s in his seventies” was the sentence I nearly choked on.

Our host in the small town of Tissamaharama was giving us a guided tour of his neighbourhood when we were introduced to this gentleman. Despite a pretty severe language barrier, we were soon being introduced to three generations of a Sri Lankan family. Camera in hand, I asked if I could snap some pictures and the family graciously accepted.

As I approached the stoic patriarch, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his overwhelming virility. Forged from a life of hard physical work, in the rice field across from his home, and a healthy diet, his seven decade old frame stood in testament to his lifestyle.

As our connection with technology grows, the connection we have with our bodies deteriorates. The same is true for our food. We rarely, if ever, eat food produced from our own hands. So is the body just a container for the brain? Or the squandered product of billions of years of selective evolution?

A Portrait Of A Man

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Bare Feet and Tasty Treats

Two of my favourites things in the abundantly awesome Sri Lanka, were the food and the people. Kindness was the currency of choice.

As I walked along the beach of Tangalle, I peered into a few restaurants. The food in Sri Lanka is unbelievable and I didn’t want to risk finding a place that would tarnish the reputation. I went in to inspect a menu at close quarters and before I had a chance to make up my mind, this gentleman welcomed me in. His bare feet dug into the sand as his crease-filled face broke into a smile. I couldn’t refuse and he led me to a seat.

As I sat down to anticipate another delicious Sri Lankan meal, my new friend returned to sitting by the shore, waiting for the next hungry visitor to walk on by.

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Bricks and Tomatoes

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Bricks and Tomatoes

Walking through the Sri Lankan jungle, I came upon a small monastery on a hill. People were running around with specific tasks to accomplish. There were men laying bricks to add on to the walls and there were women picking tomatoes in a small garden.

Through all the hustle and bustle, there was a man sitting still wrapped in glowing orange robes. I decided to ask what was going on and soon found myself hooked on the conversation of a very worldly, very kind monk. We talked about all of the places that we had seen and all the places we still wanted to go. As I prepared to leave, I asked him for his photograph and he graciously agreed.

Turtle Beach

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Turtle Beach

It was already dark when we loaded into a tuktuk to head to Turtle Beach. While enjoying the beaches of Tangalle, we learned that on that very night, turtles would be coming to shore to lay their eggs. There was no question as to whether we would go to witness this great spectacle of nature.

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We arrived at the beach and met a Sri Lankan guide from the local conservation group who have taken it upon themselves to protect the turtles. He passed out headlamps and led us down to the water. Before long, great mounds were appearing on the shoreline. With slow methodical movements, the turtles dragged their massive bodies up onto the beach. Channeling Goldilocks, each turtle found a spot that was just right and began to dig. Powerful flippers threw sand at us as we watched the giants from under the sea dig their holes. Once the holes were up to snuff, tiny white eggs began dropping into the sand. The eggs would remain hidden below the sand until they were ready to hatch and return to their mothers, beneath the sea.

The Watchful Monk

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The Watchful Monk

The thunderous pounding of drums reverberated off the mountain peak and down throughout the valley. The faithful crammed together, shoulder to shoulder, to make the once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the top of Adam’s Peak. Grandmothers and grandchildren clutched hands as they waded through the sea of people. One monk, standing isolated, kept a watchful eye.

Rain Hits The Train

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Rain Hits The Train

Rumbling through the countryside of southern Sri Lanka, monsoon rains came pummelling down to soak the countryside. Sitting in an open doorway, snacking on samosas, I caught the splashing spectacle.