Monday, June 30, 2014

ADAM'S PEAK

Four months ago 239 people were going home, going on holidays, going to work. I walked passed them, sat next to them, looked at the same departure boards as them and didn't notice them.....Now they're gone and the world is left wondering.

On a Friday in March, I was returning to Colombo after a quick visit home, I kissed my two older daughters goodbye at the airport in Melbourne, scratched the dog under his neck, stood there and waved goodbye as the car pulled away from the curb. I would have a three hour stop over in Kuala Lumpa before continuing my Malaysian Airlines flight to Colombo.

I often wonder if the people tracking my flight that night were the same ones tracking  MH 370 heading in the other direction. As I hurtled through the air on my way home, I didn't give a second thought to whether I would arrive safely. This was Malaysian Airlines, I have flown with them dozens of times. I have sent the children home as unaccompanied minors with them, I could board, disembark and wander the concourse in K.L. with my eyes shut. So just like Gwenyth Paltrow in "Sliding Doors" I went one way as 239 people went the other. I boarded one Malaysian Airlines flight and  45 minutes later they boarded another. As I walked into the arms of my waiting husband, I didn't think of all the other people waiting for a flight that would never arrive.

Together we wandered out into the steamy Colombo night. As usual the  pick up area was heaving with the sounds of humanity and blaring car horns. The smell of exhaust fumes and impending rain was in the air, the sweat already starting to trickle down my back. At home I looked in on  my two youngest children tucked up in bed, too tired to wait up for mum. That's OK I'm back now.

The news the next morning hit me hard, I was oblivious to the events that had taken place only hours before. My children in Melbourne had been frantic, they had seen headlines on the internet screaming MALAYSIAN AIRLINES FLIGHT MISSING!!!! The 30 seconds or so for the full story to upload had been the longest 30 seconds of their lives.......for some, that 30 seconds is still ticking by.

I had always wanted to climb Adam's Peak or Sri Pada in Sri Lanka. In 28 years I had just never gotten around to it. It is one of the most revered Religious places in the country. The top of the peak is said to contain a footprint embedded in the rock. The  Buddhists believe that Buddha himself left it behind when he visited Sri Lanka. The Hindus believe it is the footprint of Shiva and the Muslims and Christians believe it was where Adam first stepped after being cast out of the Garden of Eden. Every year from December until April thousands of people every night, struggle  in the darkness to arrive at the peak for sunrise. There they chant, pray to their particular God or just sit, and soak up the surroundings that are so serene and so pure, even if you don't believe in anyone at all you can still feel it is a special place.  Every pilgrim has their own reasons for the journey, I was just given mine.

I don't know why I felt the need to go now, was it to say "Thank you God for not picking me", was it because I felt guilty, maybe just the pure helplessness of the whole situation, the sadness I felt for all the families left waiting. I'd spent days combing through every news report I could find. BBC, CNN, Al Jazeerah were on constant rotation on the T.V., I incessantly flicked through my phone searching for the latest updates. The lack of debris, the lack of answers was just bewildering.

I drove to The Fort Railway Station and purchased my ticket to Hatton  for the next day. A four hour train trip which would actually be five and a half, I didn't factor in, it running to Sri Lanka time. Rs1000 ($9.00) saw me leave with a ticket for The Observation car.

Sri Lanka has a rather antiquated rail system, but slowly the 21st century is wrapping its tendrils around a bygone era and shaking away the residue of a simpler time. When the last of the old British carriages rolls off the rails for the last time the beauty of train travel in Sri Lanka will be lost forever. It will turn into just another means of transport. Shiny blue air conditioned trains from China, with their molded plastic seats are beginning to replace the hand built wooden works of art that have trundled into the high country for the past 150 years.

As the  new silent machines pump icy air into sterile carriages, there are still a few of the old trains remaining. These are the ones you need to travel on. With leather cushioned seats, shiny and slightly cracked from the years of wear. Wooden luggage racks overhead. Fans bolted to the ceiling, that turn lazily as you hang one arm out the open window feeling the wind rush by. Passengers can sit in open doorways, dangling their legs over the  side as they watch the city fade away, being replaced by smaller towns, then little villages. As the paddy fields start to appear you see the men wrapped in nothing but a sarong folded in half and tied at their waist, walking behind bullocks, up to their knees in mud planting crops. The "tattata tattata tattata " sound as we pass over rickety bridges, rivers flowing  underneath, woman bathing while others smash their twisted shirts against the rocks, soon ready to dry in the midday sun. You see the smoke curling up from the cooking fires of  small houses, simple dwellings with neatly swept gardens, other times nothing more than  four  walls and a roof made from palm fronds woven together so intricately not a drop of rain will get through.


The smells in the air waft through the open windows as we pull into each station. A mix of roasted nuts and sewerage. Vendors walk up down the platform selling their wares. The sound of "WADE, WADE, WADE" being yelled in a rather melodious voice. I hand over my Rs 50 and in exchange, lunch comes through the window and lands in my lap, never having to leave the comfort of my seat. Deep fried lentils molded into a round cake called wades and something else that looked like a spicy donut. Two hours into the trip and it hits the right spot.


The coconut palms have dwindled away to be replaced by towering Eucalyptus trees as we head into a cooler climate. The air is losing its humidity and  you can feel a freshness as we climb into the hills. Eucalyptus  were introduced to Sri Lanka and India in the latter part of the 18th century, by planters who had links with Australia. The timber was initially used to produce fuel for households and the tea industry,  however they soon realized it was perfect for railway sleepers and building. A pang of loneliness struck me as I looked at the trees so familiar to home. My eye ran across the treetops almost expecting to see a Koala, a baby clinging to its back tucked into the fork of the branches. I knew I would be more likely to see a monkey swinging around up there, proving just how far I had come.

90 minutes after our scheduled arrival time we pulled into Hatton. The train had had an unusual tendency of slowing dramatically for no particular reason, sometimes coming to a stop all together. There were no stations in sight, but there we would sit for 5 or 10 minutes before the journey resumed. Tourists would look out the window, puzzled looks on their faces, having not yet come to realize Sri Lanka marches to the beat of its own drum, no one is in a hurry and everyone will get to where they are going... eventually.

Hatton Station ticket office, trapped in a bygone era
Hatton is a small unremarkable town. It is  the gateway for Pilgrims climbing Adams Peak and is surrounded by lush Tea Plantations. One of the largest banks in Sri Lanka, Hatton Bank was founded here back in the 1800's to service the wealthy British Plantation owners. A sea of three wheelers were waiting outside the station, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting tourists as they walked out. After driving a hard bargain I climbed in one. A 30 minute dice with death followed, as we rounded bends on the wrong side of the road, overtaking buses on blind corners and the entire journey taking place at full throttle. My driver had a smile on his face and spent more time looking over his shoulder asking the obligatory "which country are you from Madam ?" and assuring me he knew a much better and cheaper guest house to stay in than the one I had booked.

 Phone used to call the next station down the line.
The old phone still used at Hatton station in the office.
Delhousie was my next stop. A tiny village situated at the base of Adam's Peak. It's main source of income is derived from  tourists and pilgrims. I rather liked the name... "Delhousie".... sounded very British. All the colonial names are slowly being replaced by traditional Sinhalese ones. All over Colombo taxi drivers are being confused as names like Anderson Place are changed overnight to Dr. C.W.W. Kanangara Mawatha or Gregory's Road, which is now R. G. Senanayake Mawatha. Barnes Place, Horton Place are all on the chopping block and Flower Road disappeared years ago.

We pulled into a little guesthouse, true to his word we had a change of venue, before I could protest a young girl, no older than 10 or 11 came running out to give me the big sell. She was good at her job and before I knew it I was handing over my money.

There were a large number of tourists meandering along the winding roads. I sat on the balcony with my rice and watched them as I ate. "Lonely Planet" has rated Adam's Peak as a must do whilst in Sri Lanka and they had all obviously taken the advice. I looked up at the mountain in front of me, dusk was falling and you could see the twinkle of lights winding their way all the way to the top, the peak now obscured by a puff of cloud.

After sleeping for a few hours, I hoisted my bag filled with snacks, water and warm clothing onto my back. The night air was cold and I knew at the top it would be freezing. I had read various comments on the internet of the estimated time it would take. The range fluctuated wildly, from 2 hours to 8. The timing had to be right, leave too early and you would be left waiting on top of a peak, clothes wet from exertion now chilling you to your bones. Leave too late and you would miss seeing the sun rise bursting over the ridge and spreading onto the surrounding mountain range. Taking the suggestion of the guesthouse owner I walked out the door at 2.00am, I felt it was too early but I didn't want to be cocky so took his advice...later to regret!

There was no need for signposts, I just followed the stream of people all walking in the same direction. The air was clear and cool, a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of Colombo. It was very quiet, just the odd dog barking in the distance.  I walked past two German tourists, I commented "Nice night for a stroll" They looked a little bemused. Mmm, get it, nice night for a stroll....you know......walking up thousands of uneven rocky stairs...cold....crowded....tired....in the dark...should be sleeping ........Uh never mind.I think the humor got lost in translation

The first hour wasn't too bad, lulling me into a false sense of security. The dirt path slowly winding it's way up and up. I was making good progress and passing people on my left. There were little shops lining each side of the path, these would continue all the way to the summit. I had been warned the higher you went, the more expensive items became... fair enough, if some poor guy had to carry a crate of Coca Cola to the top he deserved to be paid a premium.


People do this entire climb barefoot

After an hour I stopped to admire the view and wipe the sweat from my brow. Below me  Delhousie and the surrounding villages glowed in the  night. I have found over the years I do everything too quickly. I was  always in such a hurry to get to my destination, I never truly enjoyed the journey. I have come to  the realization I don't want to arrive on my death bed and think "What was the rush, why didn't I look up a little more. Smell the proverbial roses. Why didn't I enjoy all those moments that have now passed me by".

With the cold starting to creep in and images locked away I moved on. The path was quickly becoming steeper by the minute. The stairs had started and I was now catching up to people who had left hours before. I have trekked through New Guinea, climbed Kilimanjaro and walked across the Sahara desert, but tonight I would witness dedication and strength like no other. I was humbled by the people before me who put so much trust and faith in reaching the top.

Sri Lankans believe, everyone should climb Adam's Peak at least once in their life. Tonight I saw Grandmothers draped in sari's being helped by their families. Backs bent from age. Frail tiny steps. Gnarly, twisted fingers, clutching for support as they slowly lifted their feet up onto the next step. Old men, a person on each side, half supporting , half carrying them, urging them to keep going, sick children who should be tucked up in bed being carried by parents who believe a cure is at the top. All dressed in white and all believing they walked a divine path.

Every bend I turned, I hoped it would be the last. I could hear the distant peel of the bell on the summit. Pilgrims would grab the giant rope and ring it to signify the end of their journey. I passed a monk draped in saffron robes, chanting a slow melodious tune as he took each step, in turn the people following him would chant a reply. It was soothing and rhythmic and I stayed with them for a while, soaking up the harmony and peacefulness that surrounded them.

At a certain point first timers tie a  piece of twine and try to run it as far as it will go. In the darkness it was quite eerie as I rounded a corner to see what looked like millions of spider webs weaving their way up the hill.On the way back down , now in the light of day you could see from the twine just how many people had passed that way over the Pilgrim season.


I slowly moved ahead. At some times there was no one around me, at others the crowd became so dense you could not pass as  the steps narrowed. After two hours and forty five minutes I rounded the last bend and saw the glow of lights at the top.
My knees were screaming and my hands freezing from holding onto the cold steel rail. As I finally mounted the last step a soldier pointed for me to take my shoes off. Oooh this is going to  get really chilly now!! I looked at the hundreds of pairs already strewn around and opted to put mine in my bag. I didn't want to take the chance of someone upgrading their footwear for my sneakers and me being left with a pair of flip flops for the return journey.




I tiptoed gingerly around, my feet rapidly becoming numb. I was standing on sacred ground but I could no longer feel it. Now was the time I came to regret leaving too early. I had an hour to wait in the cold and the only thing keeping me warm was the body heat of the crowd as we were slowly pushed closer and closer together as each new person made it to the top. Adams Peak is literally that. A Peak. I was surprised how little room there was up there. It was basically a lookout area with rails all around, a covered area for people to sleep while they waited, this had been filled hours ago. Then another small building that had been built around the footprint. I lined up to pay homage like everyone else, I watched as each person before me fell to their knees,  lent  forward and kissed  the gold brocaded tapestry covering the sacred footprint they had all traveled so far to see.

Me, well I wasn't quite sure what to do. Even though I'm a Catholic and we had a steak in this as well, it seemed more of a Buddhist Shrine. You could feel it was a Holy place, a Buddhist place,the pure reverence and humility they were displaying was palpable. I felt a little like a fraud, just a rubber necker being there. I was slightly disappointed for a start that I couldn't see this amazing phenomenon. I was tempted to have a quick peek underneath, but a sideways glance at the two burly policemen holding military rifles put a stop to that. So as  always, when I'm not sure what to do in a Religious circumstance, I bowed my head and made the Sign of the Cross before moving on.

As the cold crept into the  very core of my bones I waited. I wanted
to take off my wet, sweat covered shirt and replace it with the dry one in my bag but there was literally nowhere that I could, without putting on a show. So I waited, cold, wet and numb. Staring out over the mountain range and waiting for the orange glow to signify the sun was rising and together we would start another day. I thought about MH 370, I thought about all the families still waiting, and then I thought about just how fragile life is. You can make all the plans you want, calculate things down to the minutest detail but in the end, it's not up to us.A twist of fate, bad luck, Divine intervention. Call it what you want. At the end of the day, the decision is not really ours to make. What will be will be. My  fingers curled around a small bag of money buried deep in my pocket. The boys at work  had taken up a collection, even our housekeeper and driver  had added to the bag of small notes and coins I carried. There was a little booth at the top where they issued you with a receipt for your donation.Everyone had wanted to make an offering, if they couldn't come themselves they would send their donation and prayers with me.

I struck up a conversation with the people on either side. One a Belgium police Officer backpacking around Asia. The other, a tiny elderly lady who had taken 12 hours to reach the summit. I just stared in awe.
As a distant glow radiated into the sky, a hush fell over the crowd. Everyone stood and faced East, waiting and watching. Only the occasional sound of a whimpering child, as their mother adjusted them to her other shoulder.
Dawn was beginning to break, and you could actually feel a tenseness in the air, I looked around, my eyes falling on one person, then the next and then the next. It was almost as if people were holding their breath. I felt something was going to happen but not sure what. Then simultaneously, just as the sun finally burst over the ridge, filling the sky with an explosion of fire, the crowd started chanting in unison. Their voices rising with the sun. The sounds floating into the air. I sheepishly wiped the tears from my eyes. I don't know why I was crying, why I was so overcome. Maybe it was the pain of MH370, maybe the feeling of hope from the people around me.....Maybe it was just hypothermia setting in.

When dawn had come and gone, and we were well on the way into our new day the crowds started to disperse. Several thousand people started moving towards the two single staircases that led us off the mountain, depending on which route  you had taken. Bottleneck was an understatement. Slowly we moved down, every now and then the stairs widened creating an overtaking lane where you could jump forward a dozen places. When I thought I couldn't see anymore commitment than I had witnessed in the past few hours, I heard singing again. I looked up to see a monk leading the way, behind him were 4 men. Two in front two behind. They were carrying a man tied in a hammock strung from the poles hoisted onto their shoulders. You could see they were struggling with the weight, trying to maneuver him around tight bends. They had missed sunrise but they were pushing on, committed to getting this man to the top. How significant a role does this shrine play in peoples lives that they would endure so much hardship to reach their destination....and what about the men, giving every ounce of strength they have, to carry him through the night so he can complete his pilgrim. As they disappeared out of site, I wondered if I could be that selfless.

I continued my journey down, my legs now feeling a little rubbery. I felt they were going to buckle under me if I jumped too hard down the next step. I turned around and took a last glance at the man in the hammock as he disappeared around the bend. I couldn't help but think there were some amazing people in this world.

4 Months later, I go about my daily routine. MH 370 has been long forgotten. No one talks about it anymore. We have satellites floating around in space. I can talk to my children in Australia as I ride around in a three wheeler in Colombo and  simultaneously send emails to a friend in the U.K. Technology is all around us, but how much is it worth when a jet plane can disappear from the sky and all we can do is scratch our heads.

I climbed a mountain taking photos on my phone and posting them to Face Book as the man next to me climbed a mountain in bare feet and nothing but the clothes on his back. I climbed Adams Peak because I thought life was so fragile. With four Gods on one mountain I was covering all my bases, but that night I saw not how fragile life was, but just how strong the human spirit was....I had a lot to be thankful for.

8 comments:

  1. This is an awsome and humbling article. Thank you, as it brought me immense pleasure just reading it. Fantastic.

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  2. Truly lovely article and I relived the moments on my own journey there!

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    1. Thank you, I hope you also got as much out of it as I did

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  3. Almost missed this one, Cathy. Been travelling, including a business trip to Nanjing. Was at KTs last night, and that jogged my memory to have a look.

    Splendid story, full of ambience and feeling. Loved it, Bill Murray.

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  4. Hi Bill, hope you enjoyed your travels. Nice to see you still get down to Knox.
    Thanks for still being interested.
    Cathy

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  5. The great or strange thing about Adams Peak is that its significant to many religions in Sri Lanka. Hence the reason why most Sri Lankans try do this once. There's a saying in Sinhalese which loosely translates to English like this. "The one how doesn't climb Adams Peak is a fool. The one who climb Adams Peak twice is also a fool."

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  6. Dinesh RatnapalaJuly 31, 2016 at 6:03 AM

    Beautifully written and what a gracious perspective on life
    Immense respect for u Cathy

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