In January 2004, I was ready for a new climb of Adam’s Peak. This time with Michel and for safety reasons we would climb and descend on the Dalhousie side. We stayed three days in Colombo to acclimatize, do some shopping and meet our friends.
Like always we stayed at the Ottery Tourist Inn run by Mrs. Fernando. It is an old colonial house whose best days have passed but with a lot of charm and centrally located in Colombo 4. Mrs. Fernando rented out six rooms and her guests arrived from all over the world, most of them backpackers.
We had ordered a driver with a van for Monday morning at 8. As I settled the bill at 7:45 a.m., Mrs. Fernando surprised me with the news that the driver was waiting outdoors. Usually, it is advisable to order the van for 6 a.m. – if you really want to start at 8.
Nosey-me, I went outdoors to look at the unusually punctual driver but there was only a deserted van in the street. A “Good Morning, Madam” made me twist around and for a short moment my mimic slipped.
To say it up front: Michel leaves most of the decisions to me, especially the unpleasant ones. I would have been the one to tell this incredibly small, very old man wearing a sarong and a freshly ironed shirt that hung down to his knees, to his face, that we refused to go on a 10 day tour with a – look above – driver. And that he had to go back to the agency and tell them to send us another driver!
Instead, I responded to his friendly greeting and went for husband and luggage.
To Michel, it was no point anyway and he agreed to slightly change our program to spare the old man. We decided to take the coastal road towards the south.
In Sri Lanka, the age of a driver is not unimportant. A driver reaching his 60’s in this murderous traffic must be excellent. Ours was in his 70’s (we never dared to ask) which had the additional advantage of him being fluent in English. By the time the English left the country in 1948, he would have been done with school long before.
We had an easy drive along the coast, made it at the latest by 6 p.m. to a Guest House and did not even bother to ask for driver’s accommodation. Instead, we booked along with our double, a single room for him.
From Hambantota, we went inland to the Wilpattu National Park where we rented a jeep and the old man enjoyed the safari very much. From there, we drove to Nuware Eliya in the highlands where a car from the hotel brought us in the early morning to the Horton Plains for a hike. And then we drove via Hatton to Dalhousie, for my second hike to Adam’s Peak.
Because of our changed plans, we arrived around 5 p.m. As I sat on the same balcony as I had two years before with the three ladies, I could not believe my eyes!
What had been an unimpressive triangle with a lit path in the dark, looked completely different in daylight!
Far away there was a mountain range, behind it a second one and after a third even higher one there was the huge Peak sticking up in the sky. I could not believe that I already had been up there. Even less, that I would make it up there again.
Because he would be able to sleep all morning, the old man insisted on driving us to the starting point of the pilgrimage. I was glad that we already passed the first “Siddhalepa” sign that way.
It is very rude to ask fellow pilgrims for the length of the remaining trek and on my first climb I had recognized the signs with Singhalese letters. According to our local friend, they were only advertising ayurvedic medicine for the said firm – but they were numbered to 132. At the time, I thought I would not be able to go for one more step we were at sign number 58!
I can only advise anybody wanting to climb Adam’s Peak not to arrive in Dalhousie during daylight. The thought: “I will never make it up there!” had set in my brain and made it from there into my legs.
Right in time for the sunrise, we finally made it to the top. I really wanted to ring that bell!
The sun rises within minutes, and it is a grand and impressive site, with the ability to overlook the whole of Sri Lanka. The first shafts of sunlight warmed up our noses.
For each completed pilgrimage, one gets to ring the bell at the temple and either God, Allah or Buddha will look down to see who is making this noise and will put the name of the pilgrim in his credit book. As the pilgrimage is only completed on return to the starting point, and one is then far away from the bell; then one has to go on a second climb to be entitled to ring it!
Happily, I got in line with the other pilgrims that waited to ring the bell, right behind an old lady. As it was Michel`s first climb, he did not get to join.
The old lady almost hung in the rope as she rang the bell for at least 20 times, the number of her completed pilgrimages. I had a lot of time to study how she did it and when it was my turn I copied her, without considering the fact that I was about half as old but twice as heavy. I almost ripped the bell off. The sound was earsplitting and in case God did not hear it, everyone within a 500 meter reach, most definitely did!
In retrospect, I can say that the descent to Dalhousie was much shorter and much less dangerous than in 2002; but at the same time, even more difficult to walk. To descend over more than 5,000 uneven steps was sheer torture and we tried different ways of walking: 10 steps with the right foot ahead, 10 steps with the left foot ahead, traversing sideways. We came to the conclusion that it worked best to simply run till the trembling of the knees became uncontrollable, stop till they recovered and run again. We made it in record time back to Dalhousie.
The breakfast at the Wathsala Inn was delicious and we would have loved to spend the whole day on the balcony. It would have also spared us from crossing the restaurant literally on our knees. At the time we were done packing we asked for our driver and the answer was like always: do you mean the old man? To our shame we do not remember his name as he was only the old man.
We planned to leave the highland via Hatton and go down to Kitulgala. The movie “The Bridge over the River Qwai” was shot there some decades ago. There was not much more than the Kelani River to look at.
The road consisted only of hair-pin bends and one could see the Kelani River from far above.
Our sore muscles enjoyed the bumpy ride and while Michel sat in front in the passenger seat, I was in the back, dozing off once in a while. It was not only bumpy, but there were also sudden changes of the speed. I started to watch the driver closer. Especially when we encountered lorries, he hit the brake very early and unnecessarily hard and when his left arm dropped suddenly like a chopped off branch of a tree, I was aware that there was something seriously wrong.
I asked him and he repeatedly answered that he was doing fine while he tried to get his arm back to the gear shift with a movement of his shoulder. Michel grumbled something like “… he doesn’t look too good” and was paralyzed in shock. The car became slower and slower and he finally stopped at the edge of the road with a free view of the river 150 meters below.
He had only turned the motor off when he suffered from terrible spasms. I ran around the car, ripped the driver’s door open and was dumbfounded: his left arm and his jaw were uncontrollably convulsing with spasms and spasms of his chest pressed all the air out of his lungs. He stared at me with wide open eyes while his dentures made it in slow motion out of his jaw.
To my embarrassment I have to admit that my brain was willing but my hand refused to catch them.
When a van passed, I stepped out in the street to stop it with my arms up in the air and yelled at the driver that we urgently needed help. Approximately 12 locals climbed out of the car and they only helped Michel: while he stared in disbelief from the passenger seat. I was surrounded by 12 locals looking at the scene with their mouths wide open. Well, not 12, as one of them made use of the break by throwing up behind the car.
The old man had an astonishing lung volume and to me it seemed that he went on for about two minutes with this terrible “mhoaaaah, mhhh, mhhhh, mhoaaaah” until his head sunk to his breast with a final “pffffffffff”!
A short glance at Michel revealed that he was convinced of having not only a very old, but also, a very dead driver. I thought the same and hectically tried to remember my training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Heartbeat. Check the heartbeat first. I went with two fingers of my left hand for his cervical artery only to pull them back in shock. When I had barely touched him, he immediately opened his eyes and asked for his teeth!!
All I could do was to stare at my fingers … and I was sure that I had just used up my credit from the pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak.
Whatever it was, it was clearly not out of this world! The old man recovered rather fast and after putting his teeth back in, his speech became clear again. No one other than the driver of the other van had a driver’s license and “Mr. Idrive28yearswithoutaccident” refused profoundly to take over the wheel as “everything is on the wrong side ………… even the road!!!!”
It must have been the shock that we agreed to allow the old man to drive the five kilometers to Kitulgala. Michel sat in the passenger seat like a panther ready to jump while I trembled in the back. The old man almost drove into the reception of the Rest House and while we entered the hotel, he laid himself down on the backseat.
They were very cooperative at the reception but in Singhalese. Each one got another one, also not fluent in English and the fifth one was even wearing a uniform but our hopes were turned down when she said: “Hello Madam, can you help me?”
Finally, we were able to explain our situation to the Manager. He provided us with the address of a doctor and a tuk-tuk. Michel, I and the old man drove to the doctor on the backseat of a tuk-tuk with hardly enough space for Michel`s and my butt.
We were able to see the doctor right away. Well, in fact there were no other patients and the doctor’s office was a bit under stocked by Swiss standards. At least he had a blood pressure unit, some paper and a pencil.
We did not understand any of the Singhalese floods of words from the old man. As I did not want to scare the old man, I was cautious with my remarks about spasms in the left arm … and the jaw …………… maybe a tiny stroke or so? ………. were turned down by the doctor. He insisted that it only had been a matter of circulation and because of the elevation between Hatton and Kitulgala, not really worth worrying. The old man nodded at the Doctor’s words and agreed happily.
The bill of 1.20 Swiss francs was more than modest. We went back to the Rest House and got the old man a room with air conditioning, ordering him a bowl of chicken soup. What else were we supposed to do?
Then the phone calls with the Tour Agency in Colombo started. As we learned later, to be a contract driver did not mean anything else but to cover all the costs of the van and only share the income with the agency. And if he would not have been driving anymore – because of being dead or something similar – his Guide License would have been lost. The numbers of Guide Licenses are restricted in Sri Lanka and before drivers quit the job, they sell the License.
After I regained my countenance following the fifth call, I told them that we had a van and a key; and if there was no driver the next morning by 9 a.m. at the latest, we would drive ourselves. They promised to send someone.
In the evening, the driver came out of his room and tried many tricks to get the van key from Michel. He proclaimed, that it was also not possible to stop him driving us back to Bentota; and he did not accept the argument that we were worried about his well being. And once more, it was up to me to end the discussion by telling him straight forward that we would not sit for one more mile in the van if he was doing the driving.
To look at his eyes was heart breaking, but I assumed that getting caught in an accident would have been much more painful for all of us. We promised to give him the full amount for the trip and pay the new driver also.
To kind of apologize for my harsh and frank words I might have said, on arrival to Mrs. Fernando`s house, I gave him a big tip with the advice to see a good doctor back home. I also told him to keep quiet about it as I thought we had every reason to be thankful and Michel would give him a tip as well. I was more than surprised when he wanted to turn it down as I had already given him a tip!
When we arrived in Bentota, the old man gave a rather battered impression. It was a hearty farewell and we promised to visit him before our departure. Because of the proximity to the airport, we always spend the last night in Negombo, which was where he lived.
After all that excitement, we indulged in the amenities of the Bentota Beach Hotel especially as we suffered terribly from sore muscles. We had this particular “we have been to Adam’s Peak” kind of walk that took several days to ease off. And a lot to talk about.
On our last day at the Silver Sands Hotel in Negombo, we went with a tuk-tuk to make the promised visit. We found the little house right away and met his wife, the daughter-in-law and his grandchildren but even though it was Sunday, the old man was not at home.
We were already prepared for a further visit to the hospital, when the tuk-tuk driver translated in broken English: the old man was on tour with tourists.