As we wound our way along a gravel mountain road I marvelled at the rolling acres of tea plantations. Women worked the land, gathering immense cloth bundles of tea leaves they would carry from the fields on their heads. Our driver informed us that tea plantations largely employed only women as they could be paid significantly less than men. A concept I found repugnant. Yet, I reminded myself, this was not my country and who was I to judge their social order. Besides, could we really ask western nations to suffer the indignity of a more expensive tea? (Yes, yes we can).
Our driver came to a stop in the middle of the mountain road. We strained to see what blocked our way. Stray dogs seem to be as numerous as people in Sri Lanka. It was a dog that now impeded our progression. More accurately, a puppy appeared to have chosen the middle of the narrow lane as the ideal place for a nap. The driver honked and the little thing raised its head sleepily but refused to move. No honking or aggressive posturing on our part made any impression upon the pup. This was his road and at the moment his bed.
I stepped out of the car in order to persuade the little thing to move along. It ignored me as easily as it had the car. In the end I was forced to pick the little fellow up and move him to the side of the road. I was hesitant. Would he bite? Was he sick or injured? Still, I lifted him out of the way so we could continue our journey.
Our destination was a hotel? No, hostel perched above a mountain ravine on the pilgrimage road to Adam’s Peak. People come from across Sri Lanka, and perhaps further, certainly we came from much further, to make the pilgrimage to this singular mountain peak. The mountain rises a canonical tower over a forested and singular landscape. At its summit, it is said by some lies the footprint of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, depending on your faith tradition. Lisa and I thought it would be entertaining to climb the mountain and see for ourselves. I could not spend the whole of my time in Sri Lanka lounging on its beaches.
The pilgrimage begins early in the morning or late at night, depending on one’s perspective of 2am. The ascent is made by climbing a mixture of cement and stone steps. Thousands, upon thousands of steps go up, and up, and up. Upon those steps go thousands and thousands of people. Though there be so many, the climb is somehow peaceful. The sounds of frogs and other insects of the night are clearly heard among the soft footfalls of the mountain’s travellers. There is little talking out of reverence, perhaps, or more likely that in climbing the ascent requires one’s breathe for measured breathing not speaking.
The way is softly lit by electric lights and the glow from little tin roofed shops pressed together like standing dominoes on both sides of the path. The shops sell mostly teas and other light victuals. As well, they sell toys and trinkets to the families and foreigners pressing to the summit.
It took us some hours to make the climb. In the dark we joined a queue to take our turn passing through a humble concrete building overtop the famed footprint. My curiosity was peaked and my anticipation climbed as we neared the site. Then we were suddenly there and I was peering through a plate of protective glass to the rock with the famed footprint. What I saw was no footprint at all but a tacky cloth lotus flower spread out over the spot in, what I learned was, supposed protection of the sacred print. My dissatisfaction was evident I’m sure.
Nonetheless, the footprint was really only secondary to the purpose of our climb. We were informed that the sunrise from the peak was impressive and worth the climb, hence the two am departure. So, Lisa and I found a small patch of concrete so situated that there would be none of the thousands that climbed with us between us and the rising sun. There we waited.
We waited patiently with the many pilgrims to witness the birth of a new day; to watch the sun shoot forth its rays over a blue-black sky and the billowing clouds beneath us. We waited to see the shadow of the mountain curl out behind us on a land far below. We waited. Though I was disappointed in the claimed footprint of the first man I would not be disappointed in this. The sun rose, brilliant, and breathtaking. It was true, I thought, that I would not see the footprint of Adam but this certainly felt like I was witnessing the indelible fingerprints of God.
Once the sun was fully in the sky and we were thoroughly inspired, Lisa and I ran down the mountain path, leaping from stairs like much younger versions of ourselves. We ran past the little shops, the shrines to Shiva and Buddha with their burning incense. I felt renewed and exhausted. We would pay for the journey and our speedy dissent soon after. Our calves would be as hard as the stone we climbed, for days. We didn’t mind, though, as it made those final days in Sri Lanka, lounging on the beach, that much sweeter.
Lisa and I visited Sri Lanka in the spring of 2014.