Of all the many, many holidays I’ve experienced in Sri Lanka, Vesak Poya Day is my favorite so far. It celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha. Sri Lankans celebrate Vesak by decorating the streets with streamers and lanterns, and giving out free food. For my holiday weekend I travelled to Ella, a small town far up in the hills where I was able to escape the heatwave that has been hanging over South Asia the last few weeks. I went to Ella with a few other the Fulbrighters, and some Sri Lankan friends and their kids. We went to Ella by van from Colombo, about a six hour ride. Along the way we passed through small towns where people were having Vesak celebration and passed us yucca on banana leaves through the window of the van. When we arrived in Ella the air was fresh and cool, unlike the suffocating heat of Colombo. The view from our hotel was stunning.
After settling into the hotel we had a lunch of rice and curry, and went to visit one of the two waterfalls near the town. Because it was a holiday weekend many people were visiting the waterfall to swim and relax. Next to the waterfall vendors were selling sliced mango served with pepper and salt, as well as smoked corn on the cob.
That night, after dinner, we played a lively game of Scattegories. The responses were quite international, and included a few Sinhala words mixed in with English.
The next morning we took a trip to Sita’s Cave. According to the Ramayana, the Hindu text, the Lankan king Ravana kidnapped the Indian king Rama’s wife, Sita. Ravana held Sita captive in a cave in the Sri Lankan hill country for many years. Ravana asked Sita to marry him, but she refused. Hanuman, the monkey god, and an ally of Rama, jumped across from India to Lanka, found Sita there, and told Rama where she was being held captive. After a battle between Rama and Ravana, Sita was rescued, but had to walk through fire to prove her purity.
Anyway, the cave we visited is one of two places in Sri Lanka that claim to be the cave where Sita was kept and it was really cool. The climb up to the cave was steep, but a concrete staircase had been built in the last few years, so the walk was not so bad. We were assisted by skilled Sri Lankan guides, ages 13, 10, and 8.
The last part of the climb was very slippery, and our guides did an excellent job pointing out handholds to make it up into the cave. As far as caves go, this one was pretty straightforward, a big hole in the side of a hill, but still not a very nice place to be held captive by an evil king.
After our walk up to the cave, we were all very sweaty, or at least I was sweaty, and as a group we decided to go for a swim in a waterfall on the way back to the hotel. I dressed in my Sri Lankan swimwear, a sarong wrapped modestly around me. The cool moving water was refreshing and after a half hour of swimming I was ready for lunch.
As part of the Vesak celebrations Buddhists give out free food at a place called a dansala (sp?). The dansala in Ella was in a big tent in the center of town and was packed with people. I had red rice, very spicy jakfruit curry, potato curry, bean curry, and a curry made from a grain similar to corn. It was all very good, and very free.
We were not the only non-Buddhists there, I saw some local Hindus coming in too. It was great to see that everyone was welcome to participate in the Vesak celebrations.
The next morning after breakfast I hopped on the train from Ella and made the 7 hour trip back to Kandy. Because it was a holiday weekend the train was very crowded and I was lucky to find a seat. I napped for about an hour, and woke up to realize a man was sitting on my armrest, leaning heavily against me, with his back on my shoulder. I’ve been in Sri Lanka for over six months now, but I still have an American sense of personal space. I did my best to stretch out so he would ease some of his weight off my body, which worked. He sat more upright, and I had a few inches of my own personal space bubble. At least until I tried to get off the train.
In person, Sri Lankans are usually fairly polite, although they love asking personal questions. However, there is a lack of agreed upon social etiquette regarding public space. Getting off the train was almost impossible because as people tried to get off, the people on the platform were trying just as hard to get on. This caused a serous logjam and I had to push as hard as I could, with my bags on top of my head and my elbows out, just to make it off the train before it pulled out of the station.
And so I arrived back in Kandy after a lovely holiday weekend.