Monday, July 3, 2017

My First Solo International Voyage

Poya Day Fun on Galle Face Green
Sri Lanka is a land full of reasons to celebrate.  There always seem to be parties, celebrations and holidays going on around us.  Most regularly are the monthly full moons.  In Sinhala, the full moon is called Poya and is a Buddhist day of worship.  Most businesses give the day off (if Poya falls on a weekday) and you are not able to purchase meat at the grocery store or alcoholic beverages at restaurants and bars.  Even movie theatres close for the day!  It is a considered a monthly day of rest and reflection.

Many times, other festivals that are celebrated in Sri Lanka are coordinated around the full moon as well.  The most notable of these are the Peraheras.  These are processions, or fancy parades, that celebrate or honor special occasions in the Buddhist calendar.  The most famous of these Peraheras is the Kandy Esala Perahera that happens in July/August every year in the city of Kandy.  There are several others that occur throughout the year and on other parts of the island, usually originating from a Buddhist temple in honor of something sacred.  But the annual Kandy Perahera is by far the biggest, grandest and most sacred one that is held in all of Sri Lanka.

Now, before we proceed, a little history.  The current Perahera is actually a fusion of 2 separate, ancient Peraheras.  The first, the Esala Perahera, began in the 3rd century AD and was meant to be a series of rituals and processions which prayed for adequate rains for growing crops.  The second Perahera, the Dalada, began in the 4th century and was meant to honor the arrival of The Sacred Tooth Relic from India to Sri Lanka.  When Buddha died, his body was cremated upon a sandalwood funeral pyre.  After the cremation was finished, one of his disciples discovered one of the Buddha’s canine teeth had survived the fire.  He scooped it from the ashes and delivered it to the king of that territory in Uttar Pradesh, India.  It was believed that whoever possessed the Tooth was the rightful ruler of that territory.  Inevitably, wars over land and rightful heirs were fought and the Tooth moved locations accordingly.  Eventually, legend has it that it was smuggled into Sri Lanka in the hair of an Orissan Princess dressed as a Brahmin priest.  The king was so honored to have the relic on his island that he ordered the Tooth be paraded through the streets for his subjects to marvel at.  It was kept in the capital with the King, which in the 4th century was located in the city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.  The capital city shifted a few times, until the Tooth finally came to rest in the city of Kandy, where it has remained.  Kandy is not the capital, but this is where the Tooth now stays.  A shrine was built for the Tooth in each city where it rested, the next more elaborate the last.  The temple in Kandy is no exception.  I briefly referenced this story in my post about our journey with the Jones Family.  That was my first trip to Kandy and my first time visiting the Temple of the Tooth Relic. 

Now, back to the topic at hand: the current Esala Perahera.  This celebration is definitely the longest and most elaborate of all the Peraheras that are celebrated across Sri Lanka.  It is an 11-night affair with a different processional each night full of music, drumming, dancers and more elephants than you have ever seen.  The first day begins with the splitting of a jackfruit tree into 4 sections, which are all planted in order to shower blessings on the people and act as a vow that the festival will take place.  The next 5 nights are a series of processions that are each in honor of a different guardian god called the Kumbal Peraheras.  There is usually music, drumming, flag bearers and other performers who perform in honor of each god.  Different costumed dancers perform, eliciting different requests from the gods, including everything from ample rain for crops to protection from famine and disease. These Peraheras are pretty low key compared to the ones that follow next.

On the 6th night, the Randoli Perahera begins, which is the start of the Tooth Relic celebration.  These processions typically have around 100 elephants dressed in elaborately made costumes, many of whom also carry a decorated palanquin.  The final elephant, known as the Maligawa Tusker, carries the most elaborate palanquin which houses the Tooth Relic inside its casing.  The processions tend to get longer, more elaborate and include more and more performers as the nights go on.  The bedazzled elephants are interspersed with thousands of drummers, dancers, flame throwers, plate spinners, whip crackers and a variety of other performers.  The final Perahera occurs on the full moon, or Poya, and that procession is typically north of 4+ hours long.  Each Perahera is then finished by the signal of a deafening cannon shot.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, “Ok, Heather, so how do you fit into all of this?”  Well, I knew soon after we arrived in Sri Lanka that I wanted to attend this grand affair.  Early in June, I began researching how much it would cost and if we could make it work.  I originally planned for us to take the train to Kandy, which is said to be the best train ride in the whole country, first for the beauty and second because I knew the crowds for this event would be immense and having a car would likely get complicated.  Then I started looking into tickets.  Typically, the businesses that line the parade route set up box seating on their balconies and sell each chair they have for each night.  If you don’t buy a ticket in advance, then your alternative is to show up many hours before the parade starts and allocate your spot along the street, like you would in the states for a 4th of July parade.  Except here, the streets remain busy with foot traffic and it is incredibly hot and humid out, so sitting on a busy sidewalk for hours doesn’t seem like the best option, especially with 2 small kiddos.  Unfortunately, as I found, there were very limited tickets left for the final nights of the parade – which I heard are really the ones worth going to.  Hotels near the downtown area were also pretty much sold out.  I gave up my hopes of this festival after discovering all of this information.

Fast forward to the end of July when we returned from our trip to the Maldives.  We were recovering from our trip and making plans for Ryan to begin a 6 week long trek away from home.  He was set to spend almost 3 weeks in India traveling by himself, come back for a few days and then head off to spend most of the month of September with the Sri Lankan Army in the northern part of the island.  As we were preparing for his absence, I received an email from the Embassy saying that they had organized a trip to the Perahera in Kandy and were still filling slots to go.  Ryan and I agreed that this would be a good opportunity for me to get away by myself before being left alone with the kids for so long.  He wasn’t completely sold on going to the event as a family anyway and we both agreed it might be tough to take the kids. We knew other Peraheras would be happening closer to home, so we decided to take them to one of those instead.  I immediately emailed back and jumped on the list to go to Kandy! 

It was just a quick overnight trip.  Our small group of 6 plus our driver met at the Embassy at 7 am on Saturday morning, ready for the 4-5 hour drive north to Kandy.  I had never met anyone of the other people who had signed up, but spending that amount of time in a van tends to bond people.  We got to know each other along the way.  Having already done this drive before, I felt prepared for the journey and had brought plenty of reading material, since I didn’t have small humans to entertain the whole way.  For this trip I decided to reread my copy of Siddhartha – I had been meaning to reread it, having not touched it since high school, and this seemed like a fitting trip.  I also spent a lot of time chatting with Alena, an incredibly interesting woman my age who won me over first by filling a role I usually take on – trip mom.  She brought snacks for everyone and was prepared with trip details, itineraries and information we might need for our adventure.  I’m usually the one in charge of all of this stuff, happily so, but it was great to hand the reigns over for once.  I knew we would be good friends right away – turns out I was right.

We arrived at our hotel, Mahaweli Reach, just north of downtown Kandy around 12:30 or so – just in time for lunch.  We checked in and headed for the dining room where we all enjoyed a delicious lunch and some more casual conversation.  It was a nice group of people who were all pretty easy to talk to – what a relief!  After lunch, we all went our separate ways for a while.  I went up to my room to enjoy the quiet for a little while, write a little and relax.  After about a half hour, it occurred to me that I saw a spa downstairs.  I looked at the clock and saw that I still had about an hour and half before I had to meet the group, so I decided to go see if I could fit in a treatment beforehand.  Luckily they were able to get me right in!  I didn’t want to feel rushed, so I picked a slightly shorter shoulder, back and head massage – just what the doctor ordered.  Spa prices are incredibly affordable here, so not a single part of me felt guilty about my indulgence.  It was worth every rupee!

Guy giving out free ice cream
I finished just in time to enjoy some tea and snacks provided by the spa before walking back upstairs to meet the group to head to the event.  We drove back down into the downtown area, getting to the venue nice and early before the crowds really packed in.  Our tickets put us at a B&B right on the front end of the parade route.  We met the manager who was excited to have us experience the Perahera from his place.  He showed us upstairs to a dining room where the included dinner buffet would be served and offered us all drinks while we waited for dinner to begin.  We had a bit of time to kill before that happened, so we all checked out the view from the balcony, watching the crowds file in and find spaces along the sidewalk to sit.  There was even a guy right below our balcony handing out free ice cream to a crowd of kids that was rapidly growing.  There were thousands of people all over the streets – it was becoming clear just how big an event this really was!

Pre Show Preparations
We were seeing the Perahera 2 nights before the final show, so I knew, after having read about it, that this was going to be an extensive experience.  They opened the dinner buffet around 6:30, which had a great spread of food: everything from local curries and rice to salad and roasted bbq style chicken.  We finished up with coffee and tea while we waited for the first sounds of the parade.  Excitement was mounting, as none of us really knew what to expect from this whole experience.  We could see a stray elephant here and there as well as performers making their way to their starting positions.  I was getting my camera and phone ready when we noticed other people starting to take their seats on the balcony.  Our seats were reserved, but we all went and sat down anyway, just to ensure their safety.

Finally, the festivities began.  It was dark at that point and the streets were only lit by lights from the businesses along the street and torches being carried by men along the parade route.  The torches were made from coconut husks drenched in some kind of gas or lighter fluid.  A set of torch carriers were usually followed by a guy with more coconut husks and fluid and another guy, who I assume was there in case something went wrong with the torch.  The streets were narrow, especially with each sidewalk packed to the edge with parade watchers.  I was nervous for the people along the sides – the torches dripped as they passed by and little kids were excitedly perched precariously close to the path of the dripping torches.  Such are the perils of a street festival in Sri Lanka.  

Whatfollowed was over 3 hours of performers: hundreds of dancers dressed in colorful, traditional costumes; men and children walking on towering stilts; plate spinners spinning both single plates as well as multiple plates at one time, throwing them high in the air, and catching them on tall poles; drummers pounding out beats from various sized drums;
elephant dressed in colorful silk robes, bedazzled with jewels, covered in lights and embroidered with beautiful threads; and palanquins carrying Buddhas and other glittering relics.  It was loud, colorful, vibrant, and long.  Very, very long.  After about an hour and a half of the performances, I think we were all beginning to wonder just how long it could all possibly go on.  And then it went on for another 2 hours.  We managed to stick it out, but after the long drive and the rest of the day we were all pretty tired and ready to head back.  We watched as the last elephant lumbered its way through the streets, after which the throngs of people filled in where the performers had once danced, drummed and walked. 
Our driver parked a couple of blocks away to avoid getting blocked in by the crowds, so we made our way back to where he had parked.

We found our driver relatively easily, climbed in the van and recounted what we had just seen.  I think we all agreed we had no idea it was going to be so long and that we all thought it could have ended about an hour and a half before it did.  Think about any parade you’ve ever been to and how after the fourth or fifth fire truck, you are checking your watch and wondering when you can make your way to the food and beer tents.  Well, this was sort of like that, except there were no food and beer tents to speak of, so we were all just ready for bed.  Once back at the hotel, we all went to our rooms, where I got cleaned up and fell asleep doing some writing. 

The next morning, we all agreed to meet after breakfast and get an early start back to Colombo.  I think some of us wanted to relax a little more, but since others seemed anxious to get back we all agreed to get a move on.  After breakfast, I ran back upstairs to collect my bags.  On my way back, I decided to take the stairs down the 4 flights.  About 1 flight down the set, I was stopped dead in my tracks by what I thought, at first, was some kind of dead foliage.  Then, upon closer inspection, I thought it was maybe a cruel joke left by some prankster or young kid.  In reality, it turned out to be an enormous Huntsman spider, sitting on the top step of the next flight of stairs…squarely in the middle, seemingly taking up the entire staircase.  If you know me at all, you might guess at my reaction. 

This was left on my pillow when I returned
and is a lot more pleasant than a spider!
Ever since I was about 8 years old I have had a fear of spiders.  I was bitten on my leg by a brown recluse around that age, a fact that my mother thankfully figured out soon after the fact and rushed me to the hospital.  The doctors biopsied the growth that had formed on my leg in the few hours since the bite, figured out the culprit and excised the growth and venom from my leg.  I still have a melanin-free divet in my calf that sunburns easily and grows spots occasionally as a reminder of the incident.  Since then, I have always tried to be rational about spiders but also can’t help the psychosomatic physical response that occurs anytime I see one.  And this one was bigger than my hand, palm to fingertip, spread out as wide as it goes.  I literally thought if it saw me, it might devour me whole.  I started sweating, my heart was racing and I quickly tried to figure out the most rational escape plan.  I briefly considered trying to step around it, but couldn’t stop imagining it jumping on my leg and finishing off what the brown recluse had started.  The mere thought of that made my skin crawl and my legs feel antsy.  I didn’t realize I had been completely frozen in one spot until I saw a hotel employee pass by the bottom of the stairs.  I saw him walk by once, then realized I should try to call out to him – someone should be alerted about the presence of this dastardly creature, nevermind simply come to my immediate rescue.  When I saw him come back by a few seconds later, I tried to call out to him, only realizing my desert dry mouth barely whispered, mostly inaudibly, something like, “Um….excuse me??  Sir??”  Yeah, he didn’t hear me.  I felt like my lifeline just floated away and now I was lost at sea.  I looked around, thinking maybe I could throw something at it to make it run away.  Then I realized it might know who threw it and head straight for me in revenge.  At that point, I remembered I had come down from somewhere up.  I turned around, went back the way I came and quite literally ran to the elevators where I ensured my safety and breathed for probably the first time in 10 minutes. 

When I got to the front desk, everyone was chatting about getting on the road.  I didn’t want to interrupt their conversation, but felt it imperative to try to explain to these strangers what had just happened to me.  I didn’t want to sound like a wuss, but at the same time this was a pretty significant survival event for me and I felt the need to have a shared human experience.  I jumped in to their conversation and briefly explained what I had just seen and they looked at me like I was crazy.  I don’t think they believed me, even though I must have been visibly sweaty.  They also may have thought I had not only overreacted, but also that the spider could not possibly have been as big as I said it was.  A typical “big fish” story, if you will.  I informed the front desk agent about what I had seen and advised someone to go check it out just in case any other stair takers came across it in their travels to check out.  I felt like saving the rest of the hotel from the perils of this dangerous creature was my community service for the day.  If you have never seen a Huntsman spider, please Google it immediately so you can have an idea of what I encountered on those stairs.  After looking at the picture, then spread your hand and fingers out as wide as you can and that is the size of the creature in question.  I would post a picture of it here, but the act of searching, copying and posting a picture of one may just send me into cardiac arrest.  But, if you can handle it, please check it out.  The image really adds to the story.  I felt vindicated many days later when, coincidentally, someone else was talking about having seen one.  At the time I had no idea what the name of this thing was, until this person described having seen one somewhere else in Sri Lanka and I knew immediately it was the same thing.  I went home and Googled it myself to make sure, and to show Ryan so that he could have some visual appreciation for my horror, and was relieved to know I hadn’t made the whole thing up.  Tropical creatures are no joke, people!

After my harrowing experience, I was indeed ready get back on the road for home.  Along the way,
we all agreed that we should stop at an outdoor market and our driver knew of a good one.  Many of us realized we had no plans or food for dinner, so wanted to stop and grab some vegetables to be prepared.  Luckily, our driver was from a town not too far outside of Colombo where there is a huge outdoor market on Sundays.  We pulled in and all got out, amazed at the size and scope of this place.  It was almost the size of an airplane hangar, organized from one end to the other by product type.  At the front end were clothes, shoes, bags and other similar items.  Then, as you moved toward the other end, the contents continued to shift.  Next was the dried fish section, with tables upon tables of salty, cured fish – the smell of which permeated everything.  Following that were the fruit and veggie vendors, lined up side by side and as far as the eye could see.  Beyond those were vendors selling packaged food items, both from stores and from handmade shops selling things like baked goods and popcorn.  I tried to quickly walk through all of them to decide what I wanted, but it was never ending and impossible to choose just one.  I knew I wanted onions, potatoes, butternut squash and some spinach.  I finally settled on a vendor, gestured to the veggies I wanted and nervously awaited the price, not yet confident in my skills of price negotiation.  Here, anytime you go to any market, you can expect to get highballed on everything and the vendors expect you to hit them back with a counter offer.  I was not super comfortable with this model at the time and started to sweat, not knowing what I would do if she tried to rip me off.  In her barely audible, unclear English I thought she said 1400 rupees.  I started to sweat more – for a small bag of potatoes, 5 onions, 1 squash and a big bunch of spinach, that sounded like a total ripoff at around $10.  I knew there was no way locals were paying anything
close to that much for these items.  I was about to dispute, when I asked her to clarify, as I started pulling out my cash.  She repeated what I thought was 1400 rupees again.  She was trying to find a way to tell me more clearly, she was even looking at my cash to indicate what I needed to give her.  She started pointing at my 500 rupee bill and that’s when I realized all of my produce was only going to cost me 400 rupees.  That’s about $2.60.  I felt silly and simultaneously confounded at what I had just paid for a huge bag of produce.  At an American farmer’s market there’s no way I would have walked out of there with what I had for less than $15.  I realized at that moment that the group was probably waiting for me, so I walked back through the market, feeling newly confident, and made my way back to the van.

We got home about an hour later.  I regaled Ryan and the kids with my tales of adventure as I unloaded my veggie haul.  I felt proud to have had my first real Sri Lankan adventure by myself.  I saw culture and nature and shopped in an outdoor market.  I met some new people and saw things I had never experienced before.  It was fun and exhilarating and made me want to get back out there and see more things.  It was exactly the experience I needed before taking on the kids alone in this new country while Ryan went away.  I had faced a Huntsman spider and lived to tell the tale.  I was ready for whatever was coming next. 
My vegetable haul from the market!

1 comment:

  1. I loved reading this! You had me on the edge of my seat when you were talking about that spider . I did have to google the Huntsman Spider but when you said spread all 5 fingers!!!! I wouldn't have tried to throw or jump over it either I would have just ran !! Lol !!!! Keep blogging I'm enjoying each one! Great pictures great experiences !!! I so can't wait to travel!