The trip to Sri Lanka in April 2002 had been a spontaneous one. I had been in Sri Lanka in September 2001, together with Michel, shortly after the LTTE attack of the airport. There were hardly any tourists in the country and one was almost coerced to greet fellow guests at the Lanka Princess hotel with a hand shake.
The Lanka Princess, an ayurvedic hotel under German management catered mostly to German speaking guests. While most of the few guests indulged in yoga, ayurvedic treatments and herbal tea, we became friends with Angelika, an Austrian lady, enjoying the sun, various trips and also, one or the other arrak together.
We stayed in contact by e-mail all winter long and in January and February the e-mails became more and more dominated by our longing for the sun. At the beginning of March, I started to look for cheap flights.
I always had wanted to attend the Tamil New Year celebrations in mid April and Angelika`s e-mails arrived in fast order: “I would love to join you ………” “Maybe I can take off from work?” And finally: “I will join you!!”
With very inexpensive tickets bought on-line “only for holders of a German passport”, a Swiss and an Austrian national stood at the Emirates check-in in Zurich on April 8th. We just took the chance and would have paid the balance if necessary when we had to show our passports. But the only problem was to divide the 14 kilograms of chocolate among both cabin bags until they accepted it.
We had booked the Bentota Beach Hotel for the first couple of days and the last week. The hotel is built on the remains of an old Dutch Fort by the famous architect Geoffrey Bawa and is located in one of the most beautiful beach settings in Bentota, between the river and the sea.
The rest of the time, we had planned a private trip with a van and a driver and the only fixed point was supposed to be a climb to Adam’s Peak.
Therefore, we had to pack hiking shoes into our luggage or even better, wear them on our feet as they took too much space in the suitcase.
It was quite a task to board a plane to Dubai with German tickets, Swiss and Austrian passports and hiking shoes on the feet, along with an expressionless face at the same time!
Until this trip, we had flown with Sri Lankan Airlines directly. The stop of the Emirates airline at Dubai did not lift our self esteem any further. Everyone knows how rich the Emirates are, but did they have to show it off like this?
At the time of boarding the flight to Colombo they picked us out and our hearts sunk into our trekking pants. We were about to get our Visa cards out as they explained with a broad smile that the flight was overbooked and we “had” to travel in First Class!!
Well, I did not understand to this day why German Nationals should travel from a Swiss airport to Colombo for 500 Swiss francs less, but to travel on that fare, and then in First Class, was too much for our tense nerves.
We sank into the most comfortable seats in a way that made it almost impossible to take off our hiking shoes. With a shy peek all around us, we discovered five business men in three piece suits and as many cabin crew members.
With a glass of champagne in our hands, we sat there like children in awe and Angelika started to play with the control panel of her seat. There were not only six individual adjustments for the seat but also one more button for the upright to the lay flat position. Soon the head of that 50 kilo woman went backward, the legs up, feet down, legs down, feet up, head forwards and instead of listening to my whispered, “stop it!”, Angelika became even more daring. The struggle of that petite woman in that monstrous seat was so hilarious and we had to giggle like school girls!!
At least the business men seemed to enjoy this on-board entertainment of a different kind. The cabin attendant most probably never had guests being so appreciative of all the food, drinks and other amenities of the “house”. She also did not mind us pointing at what we wished for.
While it is sufficient in economy class to repeat after the question “red or white wine?”, “chicken or beef?” one of the said words, you had to read French aloud in First Class all by yourself.
To land, right out of the European winter, a bit tipsy in Colombo in the early morning was once more beyond comparison. Tucking away jacket and sweater; unzipping the long legs of the trekking pants to turn them into shorts; switching the boots with flip flops, we were instantly far away from daily life and didn’t even mind the hustle and bustle in Colombo.
On my first car ride in Sri Lanka I suffered from a cramp in my right leg from hitting the brakes – sitting in the passenger seat! In the meantime, I have learned to deal with their crazy style of driving. I once read in a guide book the line: “as in the UK, the cars drive on the left. This is not recognizable at first sight.” That was all and there is nothing left to say!
We relaxed a couple of days at the Bentota Beach Hotel; indulged in local food at the nearby Aida restaurant, the La Gondola or the Golden Grill; went on boat rides and water-skied on the Bentota River; and hardly thought of our loved ones left back home in the cold winter.
The beach boys are a big nuisance for women travelling alone. If the destination for ageing husbands in search of company is Thailand, then their wives will travel to Sri Lanka for the same purpose. The only way to get it through to a beach boy that you are not interested is to be in the company of your husband, but he has to be at all times within arm’s reach. A much more efficient way, we found out by accident.
On our way to dinner at a local restaurant we discovered that it had started to rain and Angelika went back to the reception to get an umbrella.
When I went on my first single trip to Sri Lanka I had started each sentence with: “my husband and my three grown up children…” In the meantime, I was able to speak a few words in Singhalese and from previous visits the beach boys “knew” me and left me alone. Not so for the nightshift, as soon as I left the hotel compound, I was encircled by approximately eight of these toy boys. When Angelika joined me, the circle opened up for a moment and then the two of us were trapped.
It was not threatening at all but quite annoying and out of impulse, I stretched my hand out to Angelika and said with a timbre in my voice, which is rather deep for a mother of three, “Let’s go, Honey!”
The effect was dramatic and they stumbled backwards going “oh, so sorry – OK, OK – sorry, very sorry” and we had a hard time not to crack up in front of them!
Being overjoyed at first that Angelika would accompany me, I had second thoughts. I only knew her from a couple of days staying at one of the few operating hotels right after the airport attack. At the same time I knew a lot of stories about long lasting friendships that had abruptly ended after a joint holiday trip. All my worries were for nothing as I had found a true sister in soul and we had a great time together.
The Tamil New Year celebrations are rather disappointing for tourists as it is merely a family event. Shops are closed, Colombo is running out of bread and the wealthy families fill up the hotels as their servants went off to visit their families. In the tourist hotels, they offered weird variations of the local custom to play games that day. At the Aida, a sign was posted: 10 a.m. Baby Bottle Drinking Contest; 3 p.m. Blind Man`s Bluff; 7 p.m. Costume Contest.
At the Bentota Beach Hotel, they had some more mercy with the tourists. There was a sack race and they had clay pots hanging on a rope which the blindfolded guest had to break with a stick. To the amusement of the others, the pots were filled with water or flour. In the evening, there was a beauty contest.
Whenever possible the locals will celebrate New Year in new clothes. I had bought myself a new sari and wrapped Angelika in one out of my stock. Sure enough, she won the beauty contest! Along with a pair of earrings, she got a bottle of champagne which we drank at the beach later in the evening. It was the only melancholic night and we bored each other with whom we would much rather share a bottle of champagne at the beach on the Indian Ocean. At the end of the sentimental evening, I let her keep the sari.
The next morning the garden of the hotel was crowded with security personnel and on asking Janice, the Guest Relations Manager, she whispered: “The Prime Minister is here”. Other than a short trip on the hotel pontoon, the man himself kept hiding. Only his wife and the security were seen.
It is strange how normal people react to celebrities and after the first excitement, we became concerned. In a country with more than two decades of civil war where it was daily business during election campaigns to “reduce” the number of opponents, it might not be the best to stay at the same hotel as the Prime Minister, after all.
In the evening, there was a tropical thunderstorm and I enjoyed the natural spectacle on the balcony of my room with a drink in my hand when lightning struck a palm tree, only a few meters away. The thunder was earsplitting; the palm leaves flew burning in all directions; and there was a terrible stench in the air. My full glass was suddenly empty and I had to use my other hand to pry my fingers as they had cramped around it. I stumbled back into my room. Somebody was pounding at my door and as I opened it, I faced a trembling Angelika shrieking that there had been a bomb blast at the hotel. It took me quite some time to calm her down.
On April 15th, we started in the early morning with our driver Sam and his van. I knew Sam from previous visits and he had been recommended by Faye, my friend in Colombo. When she learned about our trip, she wanted to join our hike to Adam’s Peak. As it does not suit a local woman to travel alone, she wanted to bring her friend Jeya with her and we were to meet on April 19th in Kandy.
Adam’s Peak is the second highest mountain in Sri Lanka and holy to all religions. At the tip of it there is a footprint made by Adam. The locals of different faiths are very broad minded about others and take advantage of it. Each and every Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Catholic holiday is celebrated by all. In Sri Lanka, hardly a week passes without a holiday and on top of that they celebrate each full moon.
Our driver Sam, a Catholic, folded his hands, in front of each Buddhist or Hindu shrine we passed. I asked him for the reasons he did so, and he only shrugged his shoulders, most probably meaning: you never know……
It is a big advantage to travel with a Catholic driver. They do not believe in reincarnation and therefore, their driving style is bearable. We made it safe via Kurunagale to Inamalawa, our first stop. Inamalawa lies between Sigiriya and Dambulla and is a very good base to explore these highlights of Sri Lanka. It is possible to start a trip without any reservations as every other house rents rooms out at tourist sites. If one guest house should be full, the next one will have rooms available for sure.
We went for a room in the Inamalawa Inn because of the pool and the big and clean rooms. At 3,000 rupees a night it was a rip off, but we were tired from the drive and we granted them the extra income, as other than us, there were no tourists at the hotel.
The next morning, we started our climb to the Sigiriya rock after a breakfast containing string hoppers (noodle nests made out of rice flour), Dhal (a lentil dish) and chicken curry.
To cover the 200 meter elevation you better not suffer from vertigo, especially as the last third is not for the faint at heart. In case you make it to the top, you are rewarded with a stunning view over the dry zone to the north, into the central mountain range to the south and last but not least, over the extensive gardens surrounding the rock.
There is not much left of the fortress at the top but one has to admire the ancient architects and wonder even more, how they managed to bring the building materials to the top.
The Rock Temples of Dambulla are also on each Sri Lanka tour; and the monkeys there, are an attraction of themselves. As on every temple compound the ground is holy and therefore, everybody has to remove their shoes at the entrance. The floor and the stony steps are terribly hot in the sun and the monkeys obviously leave their droppings only in the shade. So you take very fast steps in the sun on the hot stones … and don’t have much time to find a clean spot in the shade. The visit of pink feet at the Temple becomes a funny spectacle for the locals. A big help are thick socks and the locals don’t mind if long noses wear them instead of going barefoot.
From there we travelled to Kandy where Faye had booked us a room at the Castle Hill Guest House. The name was fitting. The view over the town and the flowers and plants in the garden were beyond description. We visited the Temple of Tooth, strolled for hours through the botanical garden and explored the market.
On April 19th, Sam drove us to Peradeniya where we met Faye and Jeya at the train station. They had bought tickets for the observation wagon and the train ride to Hatton was an experience of a lifetime. Only Sam could not understand our excitement: wealthy people drove in a car and only the poor ones took the train. That we insisted on taking the train and had him driving the empty car to Hatton was beyond his understanding.
He was quite relieved once all four of us got into the van at Hatton and then drove us to Dalhousie, the classic starting point for the pilgrimage to Adam`s Peak. Our adventure could begin.
We arrived late in the evening and ate an excellent omelet on the balcony of the Wathsala Inn and looked at the unimpressive triangle with the lit path in the dark.
We got the last room with four beds but the place was so busy that we hardly got any sleep.
My preparations had been quite substantial and I read each and every line I could find about Adam’s Peak: from Dalhousie to the top there was a walking distance of 7 kilometers. We would have to cover the 1,000 meter elevation with a little bit more than 5,000 steps; partly man-made, partly carved out of the rock. There would be leeches and extreme cold at the top before sunrise. Either in mental derangement or to take the scare out of these facts, I decided to descend on the other side to Carney Estate: 11 kilometers walking distance, a descent of 1,600 meters and the urgent advice to undertake it only in bigger groups.
I had told the others all about what I had learned, infecting them with my enthusiasm. We were all well aware as to what we were heading for ………! We also discussed the question of fitness, and I considered myself and my smoker’s lung the weakest member of the group. With mixed feelings, we sent Sam off. After some sleep, he was supposed to drive to Carney Estate and wait there for us. We started our climb at 1 a.m.
The path from Dalhousie to the peak was lit and every few meters there were tea stalls that also sold bread, bananas and drinking water. The prices rose according to the elevation but at least it was not necessary to burden oneself with supplies.
Faye and Jeya stormed off like chickens and all advice from us mountaineers to go by a slow but steady pace was fruitless. When it became real steep they ran out of air. To avoid this tiring stop and go on, we decided to split up. Angelika would go ahead and I would stay behind. They were a bit shocked and warned us about the dangers to walk alone but the only thing happening was stunned stares and friendly nods.
After a 20 minute break, I started to walk and after 7 to 8 minutes, I caught up with them, stopping again for a break and so on, until I was afraid I’d be late for the sunrise at the top. On the small but to all sides secured path, there was no way to go wrong and I went ahead. The last 200 meters rise in elevation was covered with iron ladders and I was surprised as to how easily I made it up there.
The peak consisted of about 50 square meters surrounded by a wall and in the middle was a little temple with the relic, the foot print of Adam in the rock. The dent could only be interpreted as a footprint with a lot of fantasy, especially as it measured one and a half meters in length.
Faye and Jeya arrived right in time for the breathtaking sunrise but like most locals they hardly had eyes for the natural spectacle, the colorful mingle of the pilgrims and the sounds in the air from the birds, wind, prayer flags and more!
After the motto: “we have seen it, let’s go”, they only wanted to go back.
One doesn’t have to be a Buddhist to know that all “when” and “if” is senseless afterwards. But our achievements with the climb should have only allowed one decision: to descend on the much frequented path back to Dalhousie, get a new driver and call Sam to meet us halfway.
At 7 a.m. we started our descent to Carney Estate via the planned route.
Even though the first third of the trail was steep but rather easy to walk and with a breathtaking view of the peak that I will never forget, we hardly made progress. Again, our advice to eat and drink properly went unheard. By 2 p.m. – Angelika and I would have made it to Carney Estate by then – we decided that Angelika would stay behind with them while I would descend to get help as my English was much better than hers.
Too bad that I never took the time to learn Icelandic as it would have been helpful to the same extent. The next three hours were the worst of my life.
The numbers of tea stalls on the Ratnapura side were much less and to stand in front of a local crowd looking at me in sheer disbelief and to ask: “do you speak English?” was the easiest task. It was not possible to get more than a giggle from words like “help“ or “trouble” and soon all I did was to drink a bottle of Coke with a banana in my mouth at the same time and literally, run down the mountain. To know that it was very dangerous for a woman on her own on this trail; the dense jungle with the shrieking monkey herds on both sides; the rain that set in promptly at 4 p.m.; and the knowledge that it would turn dark at six, did not make it any easier. A couple of times I was tempted to sit down on a rock and cry.
Stupidly, I had taken Faye`s purse with me that I had been carrying all the way and as the second half of the descent was back-breaking steep, I had to wear mine and her purse crosswise over my neck as I needed both hands to cling to air roots. That had this “part and lift” effect on my chest that the Triumph label had used to advertise their lingerie. This must have added to the very annoying encounter with two groups of local youths.
It was raining so hard that I was not sure anymore whether I was still on the path or in a streambed. The last half hour I was slipping on my behind more than walking, wet to my bones and dirty as a pig and then I came to a crossing with two signs with Singhalese letters! A group of locals stood there and looked at me a bit more than puzzled. When I asked them in English for the way to Carney Estate, I earned the country specific giggle …….. and lost my countenance.
If I had chosen the wrong path, I would have never been able to climb up again to retrace my steps. While I was well aware that shouting was unacceptable in Sri Lanka, I yelled at the top of my lungs in my Swiss German mother tongue at them – a language not even understood by most fellow Swiss. All they got was Carney Estate and when they all pointed with their finger in one direction, I calmly added a thank you in Singhalese. Then I tried to walk upright until I was out of their sight.
To see Sam was also one of the most memorable moments of this trip and I literally went on my knees. After a short explanation I sent him off with the bag with the drugs and electrolyte solution (I had added the powder with shaky fingers into a bottle of water and should have drunk it myself). I told him to hire help no matter the cost. He told me to stay by the van – nowhere else – and clean myself up. Bashfully, he added that I should put on a new t-shirt ……….
What I did not know at that time was the fact that a local family with four very skinny sons had taken care of the group and had been carrying Faye and Jeya down for six hours, one of them weighing about 80, the other 60 kilos. How they managed that on the back breaking terrain is a mystery to me to this day.
Carney Estate was not much more than a bunch of stalls catering to the needs of pilgrims and a little temple. As it was not dark yet, I went on a search for a telephone but my roundtrip was rather sobering. I sat down in front of the temple on a step quite depressed and lit a cigarette.
A gentle voice asked me to please remove my shoes and stop smoking as I was already on the compound of the temple. I was torn back and forth from the excitement that someone spoke my language and being ashamed of my misbehaving. For a short moment, I was tempted to introduce myself as German.
I explained my situation to the man and he went to look for the only phone in the settlement while I had to fill in for him: he sat me down in a little wooden stall, opened a drawer and showed me the admission tickets to the temple that I was supposed to sell to pilgrims. Sadly, I was not any good for the business. The handful of pilgrims that made it to the temple did not dare to come to the stall once they saw me ………….
The phone was working and I called the Guest House in Ratnapura where we had made a reservation for the night. I emphasized to them to tell Faye’s husband calling from Colombo that we had checked in at six p.m. and then went out for dinner. He had not been fond of our plans from the beginning and I did not want to make things more complicated for Faye.
Everything was fine, so far, but we would not be able to make it back to the Guest House before 10 p.m. I saw no reason to worry him unnecessarily.
Being fine was the understatement of the year. At about 7 p.m. Angelika stumbled out of the dark jungle and was more than delighted to see me. As soon as Sam had reached the group, he had sent Angelika ahead. Now on her own, she encountered a local in a very nasty way with his sarong up. Only the fact that she was close to the settlement and had yelled all her anger and fear out into the jungle had scared the guy off.
One hour later Sam came back in the company of one of the sons of the family taking care of Faye and Jeya and was outraged that I had not stayed at the car. I was only around the corner and overheard that he called me a “bloody fucking tourist”. It made me aware that he was under tremendous stress.
At the same time, I was not aware of the danger we were in. The whole valley knew about our misfortune and help would have been available only for money, the later the more.
Sri Lanka is generally a very safe tourist destination, including for women traveling alone. But there are exceptions to this rule. Ratnapura, the gem capital of Sri Lanka does not only attract businessmen from all over the world. There is also a lot of illegal mining going on and hundreds of army deserters have found a new home there.
They had brought Faye and Jeya to the crossing where one trail led to Carney Estate and the other one through the tea plantations. After some discussions a police man let Sam’s van pass without getting payment of the 3,000 rupees he had asked. The small trail through the tea plantation would have hardly been passable for a tractor and the way Sam forced his van up there was unbelievable. A couple of times the motor died off and we slipped backwards as the trail was partly flooded.
On his third attempt to cross a shallow river (with the clear sound of a waterfall somewhere in the dark), I only wanted to get out of the vehicle. His calm remark that the area would be infested by leeches made me stay but he did park the car before crossing the river. It took Sam some time to convince the boy to go by himself, as he refused to leave Angelika and me alone. The poor guy disappeared with a flashlight. It was so dark that one hardly could see their hand in front of their face. It was still pouring rain.
The “bloody fucking tourist” recommended turning the headlights on and Sam grumbled that he would not do a bloody thing before he would be aware of who was coming out of the jungle. At this point I realized that Sam was scared too and I started to tremble and could not stop for two days.
After 20 nervous wreaking minutes, Faye and Jeya were carried out of the jungle and the naked feet of the boys were covered with leeches. Both of them had to be lifted into the van and what came next was too much for me: Faye only asked about the whereabouts of her umbrella, missed the box with the drugs and wanted to know whether I had been taking good care of her purse.
One week later I told her that I could have strangled her with bare hands at that time.
The van had to be turned literally by hand and while driving back down, we became aware as to how steep the road really was. I was close to a nervous breakdown and promised myself to never ever again set a foot on this God forsaken island!
At the Travelers Halt, we had a small dinner and then dropped into bed. The next morning we went for massages at the close by Kalawathie Resort and then got on our way through the tea plantations to the south coast.
Faye and Jeya had made reservations at the Club Horizon in Weligama and we had Sam drop us at the Noit Gedacht in Unawatuna on the way, a former Dutch Governor’s residence. Of course, they showed us the most expensive room first. It was huge with a four poster bed, an additional bedroom and a 20 square meter bathroom only covered half way with a roof and therefore, a stunning view into the starry night sky. The room was worth the 3,000 rupees. It was the most beautiful house I have ever stayed at in Sri Lanka. The massages at the adjoining Ayurvedic Center were a blessing for body and soul. Two days later we returned tired but happy to the Bentota Beach Hotel.
On our last night there, we sat at the bar and a man joined us. We had recognized him from before; not only for his strange way of walking but that he was also clearly interested in meeting Angelika. After some small talk, he puffed himself up and told us about his murderous climb to Adam’s Peak. We made the mistake to look at each other.
Hopefully, the poor man will read these lines one day: we did not intend to laugh out loud until all the other guests looked at us. The barkeeper handed us napkins to dry our tears and then we clung to each other to prevent falling off the bar stools – while the poor man fled the scene as fast as his sore muscles allowed.
We could not help it!