Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Backdated: April 4, 2008 "Pilgrims"

It is one fourty-five in the afternoon, and I have just woken up. This morning, a motley crew composed of my dear Josh Perkins, Mona, and our own personal Sri Lankan patron saint, Pradeep--set out to climb a mountain. But not just any mountain, this mountain is Adam’s Peak.

I don’t actually know who Adam was. What I do know is that at the top of this mountain there is a Buddhist temple, and that this time of year pilgrims make their way to the top in the wee hours of the morning to see the miraculous apparition of the peak’s shadow floating on mist and to see the purported footprint of Buddha encased in a small shrine.

The trip began shakily, our train arriving many hours later than we expected it to, dropping us into darkness around 10:45 PM. We were immediately shuffled onto a bus, and were deposited a miserable, half-asleep hour later a short hike from lodging. And it was cold. Our friend Pradeep is from the tropical, southernmost province of Sri Lanka and has never seen mountains, or experienced cold before. This trip is our gift to him. As we all purchased warm clothing, we asked ourselves if he would be cursing us by the time we reached the summit of the mountain.

Mona and Pradeep:

We literally fell into bed sometime around midnight, wishing that we would not have to wake in mere hours. But we would do as pilgrims do, beginning at 3 AM in order to climb the 4,800 steps up in time for sunrise. The climb is 14 kilometers in total.

Mona woke us at 3 AM, and we all laid in bed wishing we were still sleeping. We finally rose, dressed, and set out into the night, accompanied by a dog from the guest house, Sudu (Sinhala for “white”). We had no idea that she would be our guide, but we quickly realized that she knew the way far better than us. First, we walked through a gate:

We passed a multitude of sellers in the beginning, vending water, food, and warm clothing. Then came the temple, where we were blessed by a monk, and made to ring a bell, signifying our first pilgrimage.

At first, we laughed and joked. Then, we had tea. Sudu remained by our side. More tea, more climbing, along the shambolic, crumbling steps. The night swelled out on all sides, mostly quiet, and presided over by more stars than I had imagined possible. As we tired, our jokes faded, and our hiking became more earnest.

Pradeep would stop and point to one of the Buddhist inspirational messages posted along the way in Sinhala. “You read, Francesca” he would insist. Everyone would rest while I slowly sounded out the words, finally asking what it meant. I think he is proud of my rapid learning, but the truth is that we all needed the rest.

At times, the lighting that instructed our feet would disappear, and we would be left with only a thin crescent of a moon and the endless splatter of stars to light the way. Eventually, the sky began to color, pale around the edges, revealing the mountains beyond, and the sea of mist many hundreds of feet below. With the sun came the twitterings and buzzings of all the fauna that had been silently present around us through the night. The beauty of our surroundings was disorienting.

Sudu, the World’s Most Heroic Dog:

She accompanied us every step of the way, joyously bounding up while we lagged achingly behind. Eventually we reached the top, one by one, all at our own pace, where we were rewarded with Buddhist blessings and the ringing of another brass bell in the crisp, chilly dawn air. The view was priceless, and the temple grounds at the summit were populated by hundreds of moths, many as large as my hand, in every color and shape imaginable. Perhaps it was a pilgrimage for them as well. I would have taken photos, but it was not allowed.

The view from the top was a splendid, multifaceted thing:

The quality of light on that mountain and in the hill country in general, is a pale, dancing wonder. It is simply a cleaner and brighter light that reflects back the intensity of the green tea plantations dappling the contours of every mountain here. Tomorrow I will backdate you a snippet with photos to show you where the world's best tea comes from.

One hint: it is breathtakingly beautiful.

1 comment:

Robert said...

This post reminded me a lot of the hike up Mt. Fuji, although clearly this one was steeper and far less crowded. Perhaps I'll take the kids here, Sri Lanka is a whole lot cheaper than Japan.