Reflections on a Sri Lankan Adventure

Reflections on a Sri Lankan Adventure

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Finally! The torch works again. The others seem to gain confidence despite the rain beating down on their faces and keep climbing ahead. Me? I’m falling behind. Like always. This is what you get while trying to climb a mountain during a storm. Who thought this was a good idea again? Watch out! The steps are going down now. Good. This should not be too difficult, but careful there, you might slide …

… and I’ve twisted my ankle. Fantastic.

Now that I take the time to think about things more clearly as I sit here in agony … did I really want to climb? I want the pictures, sure, but I can do without the torture. Well, all the others will get there eventually and take pictures for me. At least now I won’t be the one keeping people back.

But why should that matter? You know what?! I can walk it off. Wipe off those tears! — I’m good, I’m good. Yes, I know it’s basically 6 hours up and down stairs. No, I am not going back to the hotel. I’m already 30 minutes away, soaking wet and wide awake at 2:30 in the morning. I might as well just keep going. It’s cold enough to keep my ankle cool. Yes, I know I will regret it in the morning. At this point, I don’t really care. Who knows? Maybe it will stop raining, and the climb to this temple will turn into something other than torture.

One of the most remarkable things I experienced in my short visit to Sri Lanka — well, at least remarkable for me, coming from the dominantly Catholic Peru, and having moved to the predominantly Muslim UAE — is the apparent harmony in which so many major religions coexist. Although 70% of the population is Buddhist, there are also visible Hindu, Muslim, and Christian presences in the region. While there are particular regions dominated by each religion, it is not atypical to see in a single block a Hindu temple, a Buddhist Temple, a Mosque, and a Church, which have sat beside each other for decades or even hundreds of years. Outside, you will find vendors catering to the devotees with offerings for diverse rituals, and pilgrims greeting each other as they exit and enter different temples. Of course, this has not always been the case, as the civil war that ended in 2003 demonstrates. Harmony is an ongoing commitment, and people need to work, revise and edit, like in any great work.

As an international NYUAD student, I am not really surprised by this harmony. We are after all one of the most diverse and functional petri-dishes in the world. However, as an agnostic-raised individual, trying to discover my own faith and spirituality, the small occurrences that other people may see as normal or even quaint fill me with wonder, and hope. Back home in Lima, I never met anyone who wasn’t either Christian or, like me, trying to find sense in between agnosticism and atheism. There are no other alternatives. Yet throughout our visit in the “Shining Island” we visited countless temples, met pilgrims from diverse faiths and got acquainted with their different philosophies, and how their different communities compromise in order to keep the harmony amongst them.

Not only do these various religions exist peacefully alongside one another in Sri Lanka, but, incredibly, many of them share sites of devotion and inspiration. Sri Pada (“sacred footprint”), also known as Adam’s Peak, is one such site. According to Buddhists, the footprint-shaped indentation found at the top of this mountain corresponds to Buddha’s foot, left after he visited Sri Lanka. For Hindus, the footprint is from Lord Shiva, and the mountain itself stands in representation of Ravana’s lair from the Ramayana stories. For Muslims and Christians, the footstep is of Adam, left behind when he was evicted from Eden. All of this spirituality is guarded inside a small Buddhist monastery, erected to protect this sacred footprint. Thousands of pilgrims climb to the top of the conical mountain every year, from where, supposedly, on a clear day you can see not only the most spectacular sunrise, but also cities hours away.

Sadly, I wouldn’t really know from experience. Because of the Eid holiday timing, our trip took place off-season. Specifically, during monsoon season. During regular pilgrimage months, December to May, the pathway up the mountain, with over 6000 stone steps, is supposedly lit with colorful lanterns to enable pilgrims to climb the mountain to admire dawn. There are also regular stops where climbers can rest and have refreshments. For us off-season tourists on the other hand, 2:30am had us out in our raincoats leaving the warmth of our hotel for the dark jungle, stepping into a storm that had lasted for hours, and would last for several more. In the light of the lanterns maybe I would not have minded the climb. I might have even grown to enjoy the burn in my legs as I climbed up those endless stairs that stretched into the heavens. It would have been quite a pleasant adventure. Instead, it was more of a terrifying blind scramble up and down a weathered staircase that seemed to resemble a potentially fatal waterfall more often than not. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it.

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But an unforgettable experience? That it was. And, without meaning it to be, quite a spiritual one at that. Of course, on my way up, wet and heavy as a drenched alley cat and desperately holding an old torch possessed by dark sense of humor, my experience was far from spiritual. Well, in any aspect other than comparing myself to Dante coming up Purgatory Mountain that is. Throughout the climb my only positive thoughts were about the fact that I was not particularly thirsty in the rain.

Finally getting to the top and finding the temple closed for another hour until dawn was also not fun, particularly when we realized we were not going to have a very spectacular sunrise, since the storm was still raging on in all its glory. By that point in my journey the weather started to get less chilly, meaning my ankle was beginning to realize it had been tricked. Having lost the cover of the jungle, unprotected now from the storm and the winds (not exactly the deep connection with nature I was expecting) I might have looked up at the sky and thought, “Well that was almost worth it. Although I imagine this would be a really cool place in different weather. Pity I’m not staying to find out.” To my regret, the consensus of the group at the time was that the storm made everything not quite worth the wait. Breakfast, baths and beds just sounded so much more appealing. So no, I did not stay to see the gates open, and no, I did not get to see the sacred footprint. I guess I’ll have to go back (this time under better conditions and hopefully wearing appropriate hiking trousers), and say hi to Buddha, Shiva and Adam another time.

Surfing my way back down waterfall stairs while simultaneously cursing and praying to several deities probably did not get me many spiritual points or clean my karma account. However, once the rain stopped mid-way on my climb down, so did my curses.

It is amazing how being able to finally see your own tumbling feet and to know, rather than guess, where you need to put them can have a calming effect on one. My eternal gratitude to that ancient, faulty torch which waited until I could actually see the steps to give up. Once the fear and the adrenaline were gone, I could begin to think about the last five blurry hours. I, with the physical resistance of someone who doesn’t feel very guilty about not going to the gym had climbed that mountain. In the dark. During a storm. On a twisted ankle, which by now resembled a very nicely colored round plum. I had done it by myself, since I walked alone through most of it, but most importantly, I had done it for myself. Not to prove to my friends that I could do it, but to prove to myself that I could. I mean, what kind of excuses can I make now? If you could climb that, you have no excuses left for not doing anything else. When you are searching for spirituality, faith begins by believing in yourself.

As I admired the now visible valley, limping my way down the mountain through endless fields of tea leaves and mesmerizing waterfalls that had before been masked by the storm, I had a curious feeling that others might call “inner peace.” Yes, I was in acute pain, yes, I was soaked to the bone, and yes, I had entered into most inappropriate relationship with some leeches in my trousers (that is a story for next time). But I was at peace with myself and my efforts. Since I had the time and the freedom, I had a very nice chat with parts of me normally dormant, the kind that makes you question your entire existence and such. We agreed that I would talk to them more often and try to address their complaints, and in return they would stop keeping me awake at night, specifically before exams and important presentations. After months and months of struggle, I had won. And, it felt good.

Reaching the bottom of the mountain was not very difficult after that. I mean, I only got lost twice and had to ask 4 different people for directions trying to get to the hotel. All was good. What was stopping me from going back to Abu Dhabi and facing the mountain of pending work on my desk? Apart from the fact that I wouldn’t be able to walk properly for the next week … absolutely nothing.

[Photo Credits: Top: Sri Pada by Harshini Karunaratne; Bottom: 6000 Steps by Paloma Saco-Vértiz.]

Card Games in Nepal

Card Games in Nepal

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The game is reasonably straightforward. Pass cards around from one player to another until someone collects a set of four. Each player can only hold four cards in her hand at once, and choosing to keep a new card means discarding another. Once someone has “four of a kind,” she grabs a spoon and the rest of the players follow. There are four of us and only three spoons – the only goal is not to end up “spoonless.” It is a game with the perfect combination of skill, eye contact, and clanging silverware. It is also a game our guide, appropriately called Happy, is particularly good at, and he spends most of the time with a half smile on his face that is transformed by his grin when we each lunge forward, scrambling for the silverware on the slanted table in the mountain side restaurant in Nepal.

We have one day left of trekking on the Annapurna circuit, and my arms are one of the few parts of my body that aren’t excruciatingly sore. Today has been one of our longest days, with a 4:30 am climb up to see the sun rise from the 3210 meter Poon hill, followed by a full day hike to Ghandruk, the town where we will spend the night before finishing the trek in the morning. We should be exhausted, but Happy’s enthusiasm is infectious. Spoons proves to be an easily translatable game, which Happy well knows: only in his mid-twenties, just a few years older than I am, he regales us every night with a seemingly endless collection of stories about the groups from around the world that he’s led through treks. After we leave he’ll lead a group from Poland – I tell him on one of our hikes that the only thing I can say in Polish is “give me a kiss,” which we agree probably won’t be the most useful phrase in the mountains of Nepal.

2014-10-schuchert-nepal-02On our last night of the trek I am astonished that I have somehow tricked my body into hiking through mountains for four days. The night before leaving Abu Dhabi, I woke up with the realization that growing up outside New York and going to college in the Philadelphia area had done nothing to prepare me for any sort of trekking. My travels before mainly involved navigating foreign public transportation  systems, but not trails through the woods. Even when I arrive in Nepal, I am initially more comfortable in the streets of Kathmandu, where rickshaws and motorcycles swerve around messy-haired, baggy-pants clad tourists like myself, than I am at the base of the mythic mountains. I decide on the plane ride over that the best strategy for approaching the physical challenges is to ignore them completely until it is too late to turn back. Although probably far from a practical “life philosophy” this seems to work for the 32-mile trek. Granted, the daily Snickers bar that Happy took out of his bag when we were particularly tired probably helped as well.

Despite my trepidation when first putting on my backpack at the base of the mountain range, in less than an hour I am completely captivated by the trail – the way the landscape is a mixture of surprisingly humid jungles, complete with rushing rivers and overgrown ferns, to stone cliff sides looking out at mountains that are at times almost indistinguishable from the clouds that surround them. When we ask Happy how many times he had done this trek, he tells us the number is too high to remember. I wonder if we stop in the same places, feel awestruck in the same moments as every other novice trekker Happy guides, and how many times Happy has smiled and said, “just you wait” when someone gasps at the first view of a snowcapped peak.

The morning of our last games of Spoons, Happy woke us up for the view we had been told the whole trek to “just wait” for. In the darkness groups of walkers that we had seen throughout the trip moved in the cold, up the steps to the hill, guided only by pinpricks of light from nearby flashlights. Finally at the peak of Poon Hill we stared transfixed by the moonlight falling on the snow of remote mountaintops and by the countless stars above. With a combination of awe and exhaustion I tried to remember the last time I had seen the sky so clearly. I had seen nights of stars before, spent summers lying on grassy lawns to count the few that weren’t hidden by the street lights, but for some reason all I could think of was a time when I was younger and swimming in a river and I had tried to focus on each of the pebbles on the bottom. The pebbles were impossible to look at all at once and the way they drifted past turned floating on the water into flying – it was same combination of unsteadiness and an unreachable clarity. Turning my head from the sky was like lifting my face from the water, drinking in air that was fresh and cold.

I turned back to the mountain, and am momentarily surprised that I am not alone, and we sit as a group along the edge of the viewpoint and wait for the loud cheer from the crowd when the sun starts to peak from the edge of the horizon. For the next hour, as the mountains are slowly immersed in sunlight, we share moments of breathlessness with the crowd atop the hill.

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On the last night, in the restaurant playing Spoons, I cannot remember where in the sky the stars were, or the shape of the pebbles at the bottom of the river. Instead I am fixated on the movement of the cards, the concentrated, furrowed brows of each player, and tension in our hands before someone reaches forward and creates a brief moment of chaos as silverware spins across the table out of our grasp. I try to memorize the smell of the local dish Dal Bhat from the kitchen, the lines on the increasingly familiar faces of fellow trekkers, and the way Happy’s hands move as he shuffles the deck.  Like watching the sunrise that morning, none of it feels real, and the occasional clattering of the spoons is the only thing that reminds me where I am. In the morning we will return to the city, and in a couple of days I will be back on a plane to Abu Dhabi with stories of indescribably beautiful mountains, aching muscles following a climb up over 3,000 stone steps, and the best Snickers bar I’ve ever tasted. When I return, my stories will echo countless poetic tales of this romanticized country but for now Happy is passing me a card, and we are, for a however brief a time, cradled by the mountains.

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The Invisible Cities of Beirut

The Invisible Cities of Beirut


I wake up in a foggy state, my ears reminding me that I am in a plane. I am about to land in Lebanon with my Introduction to Visual Culture class and start our extremely busy weekend. We are traveling to Beirut, then to Byblos, one of the oldest cities in the world, and then to the Qadisha Valley, a holy sanctuary for monks and a place of breathtaking beauty. As I look out of the plane window, I see a beautiful web of small yellow lights emerging from a black sea, winking at me: an encouraging welcome.

As part of our itinerary, we met the Lebanese artist Zena el Khalil. We had read her book Beirut, I Love You in class and looked at her artwork. Zena spoke to us about how Beirut is a place of contradiction, which shows in her artwork. She combines iconic images of war like guns and soldiers with glitter and pink, fluffy boas. The same kind of irony follows you as you walk the streets of Beirut. The Lebanese have pretty clear anti-Western feelings, and yet right on the corniche, you can find a McDonald’s.

The most glaring contradiction, however, is between beauty and violence. Beneath the new construction and flashy modern advertisements, there are scars everywhere: ugly, angry war scars puncturing old walls. Even with these wounds, however, Beirut, the ‘Paris of the Middle East’, is full of life; every night the streets are full of people laughing, drinking, enjoying life. It seems as if they do things in excess because they know just how quickly life can be stolen away, just how quickly a country can come under attack. Life must continue, even though violence seems always to return. It’s as if people remember their hardest memories by celebrating the life they have now rather then dwelling on all the death they have witnessed.

The walls of Beirut seem to have their own language — they have become a platform for communication between all of the conflicting religious and political factions that make up the country. The streets are artwork in themselves: the spray-painted beauty, the angry messages, the cigarette buts, the bullet holes. The walls are a bloodless battleground- they show debates, they show dreams, they show the clash of politics. Political leaders and candidates glare at each other from their torn posters, all trying to save face as someone comes along and pastes a concert flyer across their eyes, leaving them suffocated. People communicate on the walls — they accuse, they plead, they advertise on the concrete canvases. The countless bullet holes left in the sides of wounded buildings seem filled with ghosts, who are there to remind, to warn, to teach. They do not let the city hide its past. As I walked with the group after lunch in a small café, I stopped to photograph the bright neon orange wisdom that had been sprayed onto a wall reading, “without the crack in the sidewalks and walls, the city cannot breathe.” Perhaps it is not best to cover up destruction, but rather better to leave reminders.

[Photographs by Cleo Smits.]

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