Buddha, here there and everywhere

(Days nine + ten)

It's late and I'm just back from the hotel next door where the rest of the tour group is staying, I have a king-sized bed and I'm propped up with three pillows to write for at least an hour or so if I can keep my eyes open. I can hear a train going by and plenty of noise from the open air restaurant on the next floor. There's one of those yellow translucent geckos running around the walls. I figure he's as good as mosquito repellent so I'm trying to embrace his presence rather than imagining him leaping from the wall during the night and landing on my head.

Silent people have the loudest minds. And mine rarely shuts up. I don't need to talk all the time, fill a silence. Hours on a bus can fly by in minutes, there is just so much to take in here. So much more to see when you look deeper, listen harder and hang out in the moment with your glass half full. Sri Lanka will have place in my heart forever.

My alarm went off at 5am. At some stage during the night I had woken and wondered if the air conditioning had gone off but I was so tired I wasn’t wondering for long. With my alarm still going off because I couldn’t reach it I leant out of bed to switch on the light. Nothing happened. I turned the alarm off and used the torch on my phone to try the other lights just in case. I’d learnt already in Sri Lankan hotels that if one switch didn’t do as you thought it should there’s every chance one of the other switches across the room would turn on the light you’re after - but not this time. The power was out. It was pitch black. I riffled through my pack trying to find my proper torch and turned it on. Nothing happened. The batteries were flat.

The previous night there had been a couple of geckos in the bathroom and I wasn’t super keen on showering in the dark not knowing where they were. I propped my phone up on the window ledge with the torch light facing out. That thing is so bright I could only see spots but managed to shower, dress and pack pretty quickly. I was wanting to get outside because with no air conditioning the room was like a sauna.

It was 6am and I was waiting in the carpark for one of the guys from the tour to go off in search of an ATM. We both needed more cash but the local ATM nearby was out of notes so we would need to venture a bit further up the road. I was way too early so I made a couple of phone calls home, the four and a half hours time difference working in my favour.

There were security guards at the bank, one of them asked where we were from as we were leaving, “Australia.” we said. “Oh, I have a friend in Australia.” he said, “her name is Lauren.” he said, looking at us expectantly as if we should know her.

Back at the hotel it was time for breakfast and to drive on to the impressive Dambulla Cave temples located high on a cliff face about 160 metres above the road. Dambulla is thought to have been a place of worship since the 1st century BC, when King Valagamba took refuge here. When he regained his throne, he had the interior of the caves carved into magnificent rock temples. Further paintings were made by later kings, including King Nissanka Malla, who had the caves’ interiors gilded, earning the place the name Ran Giri (Golden Rock). Even through the creation of new artwork continued into the 20th century it’s all still remarkably coherent.

After dodging a couple of monkeys and booking our footwear in we took off barefoot to be schooled in Buddha statues, images, frescos and paintings. Suneth was a wealth of knowledge, which reminds me; I’ve not had to open my guide book once since I got here.

On the way out locals were selling fruit which unsuspecting tourists were purchasing much to the pleasure of the monkeys. They thought nothing of jumping directly at a handful of fresh mango. One man threw half on the ground to keep them occupied while he backed away slowly to the parking area.

The next stop was Dambulla Economic, a wholesale market for vegetables and fruits. This place operates until midnight and it was a sight to behold with every fruit and vegetable imaginable there by the hundreds. It’s not a tourist attraction, it’s real life and I’d take those experiences over tourist attractions any day.

The Luckgrove Spice Garden was interesting. My attention span isn’t the best but Doctor Rathnayake took us around the garden explaining all the herbs and spices that grow in Sri Lanka; how they grow, how they are harvested and the by-products of these for natural medicines which Luckgrove produce and sell on site.

Doctor Rathnayake, is an Ayurvedic doctor. Ayurvedic medicine is based on the principle of treating the cause of a condition not the symptom. This traditional system of healing is based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a balance between mind, body and spirit. Cinnamon, pepper, cardamon, nutmeg, sandalwood and mace, turmeric, cocoa, vanilla, wild pineapple, chilli and aloe vera - I learnt about all their medicinal properties while sipping the best ginger blend tea I’ve ever tasted; ginger, cinnamon, cardamon and vanilla.

Dharma was the cook who would teach us to make finger millet rotti, a dahl curry and coconut sambol at the Spice Garden. The Dahl curry would remain the best of around seven versions I would try over the coming days. Dharma bought the dishes up to the restaurant when we'd finished the cook and it was here we also got our first taste of aubergine moju - so good. This was around this time I found out we would be getting the recipes of all the dishes we’d made and would make over the two weeks. I think I will file them for a while though, I’ll be keen for a bowl of steamed vegetables when I get home. And water from a tap.

Kandy was our next destination but not before calling in to Prassana Gems for a short tour.

Sri Lanka has a mother load of gemstones including topaz, citrine, amethyst, quartz, beryl (I thought this was a mistake), aquamarine, ruby, blue moonstone and the world’s best sapphires, blue of course but in other colours like rare pink and yellow.

Kandy has a population of around 120,000, but 300,000 visitors most days. Tourists yes but mostly locals from remote villages.

On this night I couldn’t get a room to myself at the same hotel as the group since it was short notice so I was in the hotel next door for the first night. The porter wheeled my pack into the lift and another joined us to carry my day-pack, they looked like they were all of sixteen. It seems there is a pattern of conversation in the lift. The one who speaks English the least asks the other to ask me where I’m from, I say Australia and they both smile at me until the doors open and we get out.

I wrote for a while and then realised the air-con had gone off. Master sixteen had told me to phone 400 if I needed anything so I did. The connection sounded like a payphone back in the 80s but between all the crackling I was able to relay the problem. The same porter arrived at the door before I’d barely had time to put the phone back in its holder. He replaced the remote having brought a spare with him. Temperature restored.

Time to a shower before dinner. The shower had no frame, as in no glass or curtain. The shower area just sloped inward a little from the rest of the floor. The shower head was fixed and when I turned it on the water shot out onto the non sloped floor. The sign by the basin encouraged towel reuse due to the hotel’s environmentally sustainable water management practices but I couldn’t oblige, they were all on the floor.

For dinner we were on the hunt for good local hoppers. Kandy was a hive of activity at night and we couldn’t get in anywhere let alone find anywhere to pull in. Not one to give up easily Suneth found a place and we piled off the bus. Bats flew about overhead while the unintelligible sounds of Buddhist chanting emanated from speakers in the distance as tuc tucs whizzed by and motorbikes weaved around crossing pedestrians.

It was a warm night and I was looking forward to eating like a local. Crammed around a table on plastic garden chairs I was excited! I thought it was great that the serviettes were pages ripped from yellow pages (what else is it good for anyway). And, while initially there was some confusion as to why our plates were covered with a glad wrap like film we realised it wasn’t because the owners had an aversion to washing dishes, it was because the dishes are washed in tap water and left to air dry and we were foreigners, generally preoccupied with water quality concerns. Problem solved, safe guard the tourists' less than cast iron stomachs by glad wrapping the plates.

Back to the food; hoppers, plain hoppers, egg hoppers (egg hoppers are simply a plain hopper with an egg cracked in the bottom) with curries, dahl and wadis. Move over, crepes: Sri Lankan hoppers are the hot new pancake! Wadis, well I can take or leave those, they're a deep-fried lentil patty that is crispy on the outside like a biscuit, but soft in the middle, pretty good when they’re fresh like on this night but a bit rubbery if they’re left sitting for too long. It was a great meal and devoured in no time!

Tip: Watch out for Buddha. I was running down four flights of stairs in the dark late for dinner when I got to the second landing and took flight off the last step while yelling out "SHIIIIIT!" As it turns out - directly to a Buddha statue that I'd thought was a human. Buddha didn't say anything while I had a quick look around to make sure no one had seen me.

Track: Go Your Own Way - Fleetwood Mac


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