A LONG JOURNEY:
Five Places in Sri Lanka (and a Small Personal Revolution)
KANDY – THE AMAZONIAN JUNGLE AND SPONTANEITY
The big red bag on the conveyor belt, over there – it’s mine. It’s close to five in the morning and my bag is sliding on a black caterpillar in the Arrivals terminal of the airport. I grab it firmly and put it on my back. Not like a carapace, no, it is literally my 'baggage'. Inside are the few objects I chose to take with me – some clothes, hygiene products and two books – in a country that will never host the 'me' from Brussels: a claimed troublemaker; a work-addict with the terrible habit of not imposing herself limits; an eternal I-want-more person; a concerned friend. Don’t get me wrong, I like those fragments of my personality; it is my mark on what surrounds me. But in this pale-lighted hall in Colombo, the major urban excrescence of Sri Lanka, it feels like I’m looking at a blank painting: the strokes are there, only invisible. There is no one to mess with, no job to get done, nobody to satisfy. Just a handful of long-time friends with whom to share some adventure. The airport doors are broken, taxi-men run under the already overwhelming heat. They offer their most bright and interested smile to the tourists. I feel drops of perspiration under my shirt. The sky is brightening, the night is slowly going away, leaving place to the morning dew. I take a deep breath. It is what I do to grab the instant. Squeezed in my chest, the moment cannot escape.
A few hours later, after a long bumpy trip in a cab, we show up at a hotel overlooking the forest. We fled the capital as soon as we arrived. For me and my friends, Gaëlle, Odile and Sybille, the city is a bit distressing. We will come back to it later to merge with its crowd, its modern towers and its busy highroads. For now, we’re heading to Kandy. Sitting at the table for breakfast, I begin to relax. So it all starts here? As far as my eyes can see, there are trees, giant trees. Clumps of green everywhere, in all shades of green. After two months of watching my computer screen in a writing room, this living painting makes me smile over my grilled toast. And it only takes one thing: being able to let my eyes see far away. Not just having a quick look inside a store, before deciding that, really, there is way too many people. A deep forest that stretches as far as the eyes can see. I can almost hear the quiet sound of the Amazon River that would slam between the trees. So this is how Sri Lanka looks? I had in mind some sort of an Indian cliché; the hustle and bustle, tons of different colours, an earthy landscape… I’m unsettled but this is of such beauty that I just let it go.
Kandy is the former royal capital of the country. When you go down the narrow road that runs along our place of stay for the night, the city, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is buzzing. The tumult here is impressive, although it’s not as aggressive as the agitation in Sri Lanka’s capital city. Buses change lane without warning, rickshaws weave in and out dangerously everywhere, hysterical monkeys and spinning dresses run on macadam pavements. Pieces of orange cloth that belong to Buddhist monks – the city hosts the Temple of the Tooth, inside which is a relic of one Buddha’s tooth - white and colourful pieces of cloth. Everything is rushing, and in one day, we have seen an absurdly high number of cultural and historical sites, we’ve stuffed our stomachs with spices in the filthiest but nicest local bar and we’ve been blinded by the camera flashes of local inhabitants at the Botanical Garden. As the night is falling, a ceremony begins at the temple and what look like calls to prayer are echoing in the entire city. In their immaculate clothes, the religious inhabitants of Sri Lanka wait patiently in line to drop off their flowery offerings. At the moment, they are all alike to me. I must say that we haven’t interacted much until now. Some tourists – including our little group of friends – are watching the scene, walking around and taking pictures. I must admit that I feel like I don’t really belong here, I don’t understand these rituals. Exhausted and starving, we slip away.
It’s too dark already for us to go back on foot on the steep road, where rickshaws pass each other at high speed. One of these 'tuk-tuk' takes us to our hotel. We’re a little cramped inside, four people on the tiny backseat, so I jump in the front. “You want to drive?” asks the potbellied driver, a mocking smile on his face. And here I am holding the handlebar, one foot on the accelerator, driving one of those typical 'racing cars' from Sri Lanka. Our driver seems pretty happy with our promiscuity. I don’t care, I’m driving a rickshaw! The vehicle is roaring, it is yawing, it lazily follows my orders. This strange moment makes me smile, once again. We laugh, a little euphoric, the Elisabeth from Brussels and the one sitting on this faux-leather seat. Where were you, spontaneity? These last few months, when I was working on my thesis, procrastinating on an article, sweeping the future away from my thoughts? It is really good to see you again, old friend.
SIGIRYA – THE MOON AND THE CONNECTIONS
Two days earlier, the wheels of our bicycles were leaving watermarked prints on the red track, while bursts of our voices were spreading in the dusty wind. We were then in Polonnaruwa, a small town that has not much of interest to offer but an enormous archeological site, which is therefore of incredible interest. Once past the fear caused by the meeting with a member of the varanidae species – a sooty half-reptile, half-dog monstrosity –, a strong, unbalanced sea spray gust along the Bendiwena and a bloody iguanas’ fight to death, we walk into the ancient city. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, former capital under the reign of Vijayabahu I and, secondarily, background for the music video of Duran Duran’s Save a Prayer song… Just that! Visitors are mostly Sri Lanka citizens, all draped in white cloth and from above, they look like small dots moving on a green and ochre map.
We take off our shoes to walk on the ancient stones and the gravel hurts the soles of our feet, which aren’t used to wandering without shoes. At the corner of a monument, two pale-skin big guys are a rare thing enough to see these last days, so we glance at them like true Sri Lanka citizens. We quickly got used to being looked at by men in local buses and getting women’s timid smiles, like a confidence spoken without a word. I listen attentively. They don’t speak French, nor English, Italian or Spanish – long story short, they don’t speak any language that could establish a link between us, not even a frail one. It’s strange but at that time I have trouble to imagine having to build another bridge to approach another culture. Why should we have to befriend the only white people we've come across, anyway? As if the only fact of being Caucasians should bring us closer….
Still, we exchange a few words with them afterwards, when the sun begins to withdraw over the ruins of the ancient city. The truth is quite a coincidence but we happen to sleep in the same little guesthouse that night, where we will break, with an obvious pleasure, the first golden rules of a European in Asia: never stroke the dogs or drink fresh fruit juice. But hell, those dogs may be infested with fleas, they are no less adorable and I have never eaten such tasteful fruits! We share spoons of our second roasted kottu for the day and have a beer together – at that time, we have no idea that our host is breaking a rule that night, as it is forbidden to serve alcohol on Poya night, a Buddhist celebration related to the full moon. I soon become friends with Jure (pronounce 'Yura'), a tall Slovenian, musician, funny guy with whom we will quickly switch from small talks to discuss both our lives, our desires and our weaknesses. As for Andrej, he is one of those timid people hidden in the shadow of their more extravert friends – although I had never met a person as thoughtful and hilarious as him, and this big bear will be the one who, months later, will get me out of my morning blues, while I’ll be looking for a job. On that night, while each of the girls takes turn going to bed, we keep on talking under the yellow light bulb of the terrace, with mosquitos feeding on us.
The next day we leave the small hot town for Habarana, a few miles North-West. The village is in an ideal place for visiting what we call the 'golden triangle', a handful of cultural jewels in the north of Sri-Lanka. We plan to visit Sigiriya – the lion’s rock, the citadel or palace in the clouds, of which there is almost nothing left but a monumental rock. The problem is, the visit costs a fortune, considering the cost of life here in Sri Lanka – to which we got used pretty fast. The group thus splits in two: one part will go see the official monument, the other will go see its less glorious twin a few miles away. I’m part of the 'affordable' visit team, with Sybille, Andrej and Jure. After the climb, that the crushing sun heat made a little hard, we finally get to a few metres from the peak. We get round a watch-rock, slip through another one and there it is. The top is actually a giant lunar stretch; at its centre, a cluster of shrubs and some leafless trees. And us, no one but us, alone in the world. Welcomed gusts of wind feel like caresses, although they should whip our skin and they drive us apart on the rocky stretch of earth.
Andrej is sitting two hundred metres from me, in a way that inevitably reminds me of Buddha himself. Ahead of him, Jure is standing, facing the wind, embracing the green and blue-spotted stretch, which lays at our feet. Behind me, Sybille’s face is serene, her body is heavy and relaxed at the same time. I have the impression that I can feel their emotions, like an electric wave going from one to another; invisible. Beyond this connection, there is peace. Peace, wind and the four of us. A thought comes back to my mind, unclear, implicitly egoist, maybe typical of a city girl; anyway, it is personal, as the result of a singular path: “I don’t really need new friends, ‘cause I have enough friends.” Enough diners to schedule, enough drinks to get to, enough pals to celebrate, enough blues to liven up, enough from-tears-to-laugh to share, enough crazy projects to realise… Such a joke. I wouldn’t have wanted to be at the peak of the rock who’s seen the world be born with anyone else but these three people. And two of them I’ve known for barely a few hours.
TRINCOMALEE – MARTINIQUE AND REST
7am. Strident ringing. My eyes are closed and my biological clock is yelling at me that something is wrong. Waking up with a start, checking and being horrified: it really is 7am, meaning I missed my alarm clock ringing 30 minutes earlier. I get irritated, I get angry… This is what I do best: I can get up in a wink's time and get overwhelmed by an impressive number of emotions before I put one foot down on the floor. Shower. Feeling ugly in the bathroom’s mirror. I mumble. No breakfast, ‘cause we drank up the bottle of milk yesterday, on Sunday. I dress up, pick up the clothes laying on the floor and stuff them in a bag. There’s no way I’ll catch my train and the intern will wait for me outside and my stomach will still be empty and I’m tired. Where are my fucking shoes? I suddenly remember that a couple of friends spent last night in the living room. Shit. Never mind. It’s a mess; two people look with me for that damn other sneaker, which we finally grab from under the mattress we had made up. My helmet doesn’t fit into the cover and I feel the urge of throwing it over the room. It’s what I do, by the way, but because I like this object too much, I make it land on the bed. The gesture is ridiculous. Now I’m filled with frustration and ridicule. I mumble angry words about the one who’s waiting patiently for me to say goodbye. Shit, shit, shit, my train. No goodbye, I close the door on a final teenage-like “I’m sick of this!” I immediately regret that but I have no time to make up for my mistake. Later, so I won’t be late. On the way to the station, the bakery is closed. On the tramway I trip over legs, which someone didn’t put aside. I bump into a bag. Someone is screaming outside. The escalators are jammed with people and go slowly. A kid’s in the way. Mean eyes. I let myself fall on the train seat, exhausted. The day’s just started.
The everyday routine. Like a mantra, every morning, I try to tell myself that only I can make this good. Sometimes, it works, but for now, I just want to enjoy my awful mood. At Trincomalee, some months ago, hell wasn’t me, it wasn’t other people either. The truth be told, it looked a little like paradise. A paradise of old-style postcards: a beach of fine and immaculate sand with little harmless crabs and small waves licking my toes.
It’s 7am here too. I got up early because I wanted to. Just for this solitary moment, already welcoming, on the corner of a foreign beach. I hold a magazine in my hands, as people on holidays usually do, but with no intention to read it. It’s just for the act. Today, I have nothing better to do than slip my toes into the wet sand. A dog goes by. The palm trees stretch their shadow. Small boats lazily float on the water. We went through cities and visited at such a high pace these last days, in an almost euphoric excitement. Trincomalee, it’s our holiday break during our holidays. I must admit it is a modern absurdity. There we were reunited with 'our' Slovenians under the rain, with nothing else to do but watch the storm explode outside of our wooden hut on stilts, to read books, talk, and sip excessively big Lion’s. I learn to rest. I learn to enjoy in silence.
ADAM’S PEAK – EVEREST AND SURPASSING ONESELF
Nuwara Eliyia, mysterious and foggy, has the shade of a colony: English weather, cold and humid, relics in the shape of red cabins and tea plants stretching as far as the eye can see. It is beautiful under its white veil, not as wild as it would seem. We are standing on Sri Lanka’s heights, and we’ve decided to go even higher. At a biblical height, in fact, as in this late morning, we’re on our way to climb Adam’s Peak: the mountain from which Adam would have arrived, after being thrown out of Paradise, according to one of the many local legends.
It is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, Shaiva Hindus and Sri Lanka Muslims, who climb to the top in never-ending rows. At that moment, the paths are clear, as it is not the time for pilgrimage yet. At the foot of the mountain, the heat of the sun is crushing and we hope to reach the top in three hours. A paved path bordered by colored huts shows the start of the march to come, and the group immediately splits in two. Jure and I walk at a quick pace, boosted by one of our conversations.
[Let’s remind of some essential facts that will help understand clearly what follows: I am far from being what we call an athlete. The frequency of my sporting whims increases as my weight rises, which doesn’t mean I do anything concrete. I’ve never enjoyed running, sweating, struggling for breath, choking or dying… At a push, I like swimming. But I’m not going to reach Adam’s Peak by swimming, you see my point?]
The long way to the peak consists essentially in wide spaced steps. The big Slovenian guy outwalks me half an hour after the start. I could wait for the others, a hundred meters more or less behind me, but something is pushing me to go forward. When we travel, even alone, we’re actually not often on our own. We don’t get much chance to detach ourselves. So I keep on climbing, decided to sport and sweat, for once. From time to time, the steps disappear and leave enough space for a life-saving flat area. In this afternoon going foggier, almost ghost-like, it is easy to imagine the pilgrims stopping to rest for a little while or to eat one of those spicy triangles.
Then I am able clearly feel the excitement and the effervescence that can reign in this kind of sacred place, which is yet truly inhabited by those who pass by. Old, little stooped men, wrapped in pale or orange cloth, women in sari’s, whose offshoot lets go of the cloth to go jumping around a little further. But I am totally alone in the middle of this mountainous crossroads. Around me, a landscape of rocks and trees went down the stairs. And the silence… Apart from that rusty blue door that suddenly starting to slam. I’m a pretty rational person, but Romero would shiver with pleasure at the idea of this unexpected noise. I picked up the pace.
I breath out, red-faced. The steps are becoming higher and higher and they now seem more like an inclined ladder than actual stairs. Tiny streams of water were sliding between the rocks and the humid air blends with my perspiration. I was hot, despite the fact that it was increasingly freezing. I pause for two seconds. My legs are like jelly and my thighs hurt. To go on. To stop. One more effort. I take a hold on the iron barriers, which are all wet, and I use my arms to help me push forward. Around me the fog is dense and I can hardly see more than a few meters ahead. I have no idea how far I was from the top. I have not seen Jure or the others for a while. I go forward alone half the climb, lost in my thoughts… essentially focused on the pain rushing in my legs. More than once I feel like giving up, convinced that the small group behind me decided not to finish the climb. The abrupt way is turning, one last time. A few meters higher, the Slovene guy is waiting for me, he gives me a friendly thump, his lips laughing silently. Because of the fog, the view is nonexistent. The place is frankly ugly and the wind is blowing in an unreal way. Yet, we feel like adventurers at the top of the mount Everest. Proud and a little euphoric. We sure feel alive.
P.S: All our team got to the top of Adam’s Peak.
GALLE - PAS-DE-CALAIS, CUBA
AND THE CONNECTIONS (II)
Four girls jumped off one of those red buses, which didn’t break down for once. We left Mirissa and its beaches of the South coast to get to Galle. We boarded two rickshaws, their dashboards decorated with plastic sunflowers, that quickly dropped us off in a long paved alley. Before us stands a stunning home decorated with flowers, its roof bordered by swastikas inclined on the right, which are symbols of good fortune despite their deadly connotation in Europe. By the entry we are welcomed by an old man riddled with wrinkles, who looks like a character from an Oriental tale. The inside of the building looks exactly like him: antique. Patina wood panels, old family pictures hanging on the wall and high ceilings give a magical touch to the place. Outside, a vast garden with a luxurious promenade over which little primates hanging in the trees, domestic birds and gigantic colored flowers are looking upon us. The little girls in each one of us are excited: the real 1001 Nights palace is here standing in front of us, as if it appeared out of nowhere.
A few minutes away from our sanctuary, the invincible Galle is not exactly what it looks like. Despite its 18th century remparts, enormous protectors of the city and its port, it has been devastated by the tsunami in 2004. Thousands of people died, because a mile away from there, the ground had shaken. Today, like in every place we visited in Sri Lanka, there’s nothing left of this tragic event but a few pictures slid in plastic pockets in a little hotel on the East coast. Galle’s streets are alive day and night, like all the main urban places of the country. Life has taken back its rights, like an indifferent avenger. The old city, surrounded by defensive walls covered with moss, is much more calm than its sister. It welcomes more tourists as well. A multitude of little boutiques sell the same "hand-made" souvenirs and vendors halt backpackers on the street to give them a tour of their shop.
The ancient Dutch colonial city, however, has lost nothing of its… Breton charm. Close to a white lighthouse stands a high rocky wall, at the feet of which come crashing grayish waves. The area is made of small green valleys that look strangely familiar. Down the hill on which stands the luminous colossus is a great immaculate mosque. Further, in the narrow streets, the sun lights up the blue, orange, yellow, red and even multicolor facades, neatly decorated with graffitis. However, the warm colors dominate and the vegetation gives the all a Cuban note. The contrast between these two parts of the old town is striking. But you must know it by now: from North to South and from East to West, India's tear is always changing, like a multiple-side rock.
A few meters away from the famous lighthouse, there's a little tavern with tons of Sri Lankan masks covering the walls. Richly brocaded cushions, warm colored walls and several tables on the first floor. Once installed, my attention is caught by a detail on the archaic plastic menu: the chef says he has worked in Belgium. It takes nothing more for the cook to leave his kitchen and come chat with us. After two dishes, that will figure on the list of the most delicious meals we have ever tasted, he even comes to sit at our table. The young chef then tells us his story, his idylle with a Belgian girl, two kids left alone in the rainy capital, his sense of lack and his feelings of love, his country. During our trip, we have had the chance to discuss with a lot of locals, but none of them opened to us like he did. He has something touching, that makes me want to stay a little longer in this small restaurant of Galle. Luckily, he invites us to stay at the little party thrown up in honor of an old friend. New dishes come, of which we take mouthfuls out of politeness and love of good food. Matches are set on fire, cigarettes light up here and there. We're no longer in a tavern, but in a family's kitchen. An enormous butter cake now lays on the table, along with a bottle of arrack and small glasses. Only one, I promise. The night goes on and his friends look surprised to see us, but the cook introduces us to all of them. We finally leave our friend and hop on a tuk-tuk, crammed on the backseat. Filled with food and laughter. Before us on the road, the doors of a truck open on young people, a bottle in their hands. Traffic is dense. The Sri Lankan night shines and blinks, enlightened by the spotlights of ads and the olds light bulbs of shops that are still open.
Soon we'll leave for Colombo, far more typical for a big city but wild at the same time. There won't be another stop, the capital of Sri Lanka means that we are going back home, the end of the adventure. Maybe it's time to explain the title of this small series of letters from Sri Lanka. During this trip, I didn't mean to make a revolution of myself, even less to battle who I was. It wasn't about fighting the one I was and still am while walking the streets of my city. In Sri Lanka, I visited every inch of myself, I examined every little detail about me without even knowing. On the way, I rediscovered small parts of me that were hidden in the wrinkles of the daily routine. Parts that were put aside because they're not essential to my functioning in society. This doesn't mean they're not necessary to me. This is what the F means to me: make myself complete again.
An adventure of Elisabeth Debourse
Translated by Lola Decamps