The Pilgrimage - Day 2/5
16th July 2017 - We woke with dawn, birds chirping in the trees and the moon still high in the sky. It was a relaxing morning, sitting on our mats, drinking tea, swimming and chatting leisurely. I dip into the river, feeling a little safer from the crocodiles in the daylight. I'm trying to wash my body as best I can with my clothes on, while listening to Brian talk about the Universe and the circumstances that has led us here. Apparently there are reasons why we are here, why we are all here, and these will become apparent to us when we reach Kataragama, the final destination of the pilgrimage. Eyes wide and listening carefully, I soak it up like a sponge. I love this kind of shit.
We hang around for a few hours that morning and I take a little stroll to see the campsite in the daylight. The morning light coming in through the trees created magic in the smoke of the morning fires.
We pack our belongings and begin the few kilometres alongside the river, until we reach the crossing. Half holding my stick, I take my shoes off and put them in my hand, place my bag on my head and tuck my sarong around my waist. I take a moment in the middle of the river, on the border between Kumana and Yala national park. The water is warm as it gushes past my legs. Once we reach the other side, a woman hands me a small cup of sweet tea. She was returning the gesture as I remembered her from yesterday; we gave her some biscuits and tea close to the lilies. I smiled an understanding smile and gave thanks in Sinhalese. All the eyes watching me, crinkled with wrinkles as they smiled in my local acknowledgement.
The 10 of us sit by the riverbank momentarily, smoking and observing the families setting up camp around us before we went on our way. The lush trees of the riverbank thinned out as we moved further and further inland, until it was a single laned dirt path with clumps of rather dead looking dry bushes everywhere. It was a drastic change of scenery to the river. The energy changed, it became very raw and real, and for the first time, I felt quite frightened.
It was almost midday and the sun was extremely harsh, no shelter found anywhere. It was rather silent all morning, as we moved through leopard land, seriously I felt like one was going to jump out at any minute. I echoed a few more ‘Haro Hara’s’ that morning; loud and hopeful it would scare away any wildlife. The boys invited us to be really conscious of our steps today. They told us the landscape would change and the conditions were harsh. They were right. It was a workout for my eyes as much as my body. Huge, white dagger like prickles, the length of your finger, sat sharp and evil all over the dry dust of the earth, no mercy in this land.
We walked hard and fast in between resting spots. It felt like Africa and we were on the move. Barren and harsh and so very flat, there were no landmarks anywhere, it was that feeling of complete lost in the wilderness. Everyone was walking bare feet at this point to feel more connected with the earth. It was dry and prickly, and clumps of elephant poo were littered everywhere to bask in the hot sun. There was only one type of tree now, the only one able to survive out here I guess. They were ancient looking; small and weathered, often the trunk branching into two near the base, to grow outwards and sideways. They were windswept and wise. Twisted branches showed scuff marks, so you know there’s been leopards curled up in there. The heat was too much to handle, so we parked up under one of these trees for water and biscuits.
Vidura, one of the leaders of the group talks of walking with intention and observation, the type of intentions that derive from truth and integrity. I thought about faith and the absurdity yet wonder within it. He says in the evening, before sleep, they even ask for forgiveness for all the harm they have done subconsciously, like stepping on an ant without knowing. Forgiveness and gratitude are paramount to them. Lots of time to think out here.
As we walked and walked and walked, across landscape after landscape, I was beginning to learn more about the guys we were with. Small conversations sparked every now and again, a flame in the silence, as we passed one another in our group. A few of the boys had led a very different life before. Like the ex hunters turned vegetarian, or one who worked in a bar in Arugam Bay, surrounded by boozed up tourists out for a few weeks of partying. Where he felt a loss of connection to himself and his mind. He didn't feel wholesome in his environment and chose to get out. It was fascinating for me, and a breathe of fresh air to to communicate consciously about these cycles that we all live. I sometimes walked alone though, just my stick, and me in a rhythmic trance.
It had been about four hours since we left the river and my t-shirt was stuck to my skin with sweat. I also started to get hungry. Luckily, I saw the boys heading off trail, which means we were setting up for lunch. Machete in hand, they had already cut leaves off the hanging tree so we could sit under it comfortably, had started a fire and rolled out the mats before I’ve even had a chance to take my bag off. I sit next to them, watching Ravindu grab an old piece of wood to create a Sri Lankan kitchen utensil from scratch.
He starts by sharpening one end, so its flat across the top but sharp, like an axe. Then he starts making indentations like little dagger teeth, careful and with precision. He grabs a coconut from one of the sacks and hits it three times with his machete, rolling it in his hand. Water comes pouring out as he drinks some. But it’s the inside he wants. Sitting on one end of the wood, and holding half a coconut, he then starts scraping the inside out with his new utensil. Fresh shredded coconut for Sri Lankan type truffle things that tasted like cookie dough. Mmmm.
I turn to Brian, the obvious translator in our group now, and explain how amazing and resourceful the boys are, which of course he translates into Sinhalese. This is how its been going down lately, Brain translating English to Sinhala and vice versa. They all look at me and smile, some words spoken between a few and they laugh heartily amongst themselves. Although I don’t understand what they’re saying, I feel accepted and I laugh along. They were probably making fun of me but I don't mind. I could sense most of the boys in the group were pretty surprised that Tyler and I were even there at all. And I guess the surprise turned into bewilderment which turned into curiosity which later came round to respect. I mean, we were actually partaking in a very ancient and local pilgrimage (although I didn't exactly plan to), where people had lost lives in these national parks. Not for the faint of heart. I could tell they were especially surprised by me, but I think they took pride in the fact we grouped with them, because the care and generosity they showed us was next to none. And I took pride in the fact we grouped with them, fate couldn't have chosen a better group.
Brian turns to me, as I’m getting my hair out of my face from the wind, and says, “Sometimes in life, we need people. The right kind of people around us. Sometimes we cannot fight our battles on our own”. I think about Delos and my dealings with the repercussions of leaving, lonesome and on my own. I turned my face into the wind, so my hair flew behind me. The wind was strong today and I closed my eyes and took a deep breath in through my nose. “We must work as One” Brian continued “to be pure and free, we must be One” he played with some stones on the ground in front of him. I knew exactly what he meant.
As we walked through the afternoon on that second day, it felt more like a desert than a jungle. Dry and windy, dust constantly blew into my eyes. I look across at the huge herd of wild buffalo in the distance, hazy and surreal. I quickly look away and continue focusing on my steps. We went on like that in a walking daze, for about three hours that afternoon. We passed a dead elephant carcass where we stopped momentarily to look in awe at the gigantic bones. Life and death. Creation and destruction.
There were a few people we passed by that day, always in a line of colour, drifting through the landscape. We reached our destination for the day at an allocated water refill station. The only infrastructure the officials had supplied was water tanks placed throughout the landscape. I'm glad this was the only thing, as I was quite enjoying the adventure.
Ecstatic, we see our friend from Colombo at the watering station where we exchange cookies, some sweets and a few stories of how it’s been going. Our conversation is cut shore, as Tyler and I must follow our group into the jungle a little to find our resting spot for the night. An animal track for sure. “We’re sleeping here?” I ask to busy, working hands, cutting sticks down for what looks like is going to be a huge fire. I get smiles in return. Well, I guess so. Hopefully the elephants won’t come through here in the night (like they normally do).
We set off to the watering hole before the sun sets to wash the dust and dirt off our body. Our dark silhouettes outlined in the dusky sky, it was beautiful. I feel envious of the boys and their toothbrushes and change of underwear. I do the best I can and once again, slip into Tyler’s only other T-shirt and wrap the sarong around me.
I sit on our mats as I watch everything go black, apart from our huge fire, which the boys start after a dinner of rice of curry. I was exhausted and hoping for a good night sleep, although unsure of how that would go down as the ground was rock hard. Nights are slightly frightening. We only have each other and the fire for comfort. Sitting in our circle, I flinch at most sounds, only turning around to see blackness. Feeling deeply in this now; isolated, but together.