So far we have been out of the country for 101 days. Just over three months. At times, we are starting to get tired of each other and our tiny rooms. But we have also started paying attention to small things and noticing amazing things about ourselves, our family, and the places we travel. I think we are all getting more intrepid in eating, adventuring, and other things. I have found that I am starting to be more grateful for everything — from running water, to transportation, to electricity — as I have seen and lived in places where these basics cannot be taken for granted.
Sometimes, there are political reasons for why things are different in the places we visit. For instance, in Sri Lanka, there were lots of power cuts because the main Chinese-built coal power plant is malfunctioning. We read in the paper that some people blame the government for not investing in other kinds of energy. With the power out, it got really, really hot! In Myanmar, people wouldn’t accept US dollars if they had a speck of dirt on them, but they would accept a kyat bill (the local currency) if it had a huge tear in it. We couldn’t figure out why this custom existed, and no one seemed to know when we asked them. All the places that we have traveled to have also been affected by climate change. We commonly hear that the rains are unpredictable and out of season and that it is even hotter than usual. Since we have never been to some of these countries before, we have nothing to compare them to, but even we notice strange weather patterns occasionally. It has helped us realize that we really need to act fast since some of these places will be almost unliveable if we don’t.
Sometimes it is difficult travelling in places that feel very different: I struggled on one long public bus ride with not knowing how to pay, where to sit, or how to keep my head from falling onto the person sitting next to me. I am noticing how differently people live, and how for many people the struggle is just to have enough money to get through the day and provide food for their family. Amazingly, in some places we’ve visited, these same people have invited us into their homes to share food and drinks, and I worried that I shouldn’t accept because they probably need it more than I do. And yet, I learned that in many countries hospitality is very highly valued and it would even be rude to turn down offers of kindness. Through these connections, I have really seen that at heart people all over are very similar to us despite outside differences, and I have met some incredible people.
One place where I felt the most foreign was Kataragama in Sri Lanka. Kataragama is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the country. It is so special because there is an ancient Buddhist site right next to a Hindu temple dedicated to the important god named Kataragama, as well as a mosque, and people come to worship at all three places – whether they are Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim, they still stop at the Kataragama shrine. At certain times of year, people trek all the way from Colombo to Kataragama. For the people who walk, the trek can take about 40 days and it is very, very hard. Of course, we were just staying a little ways off, and came in a taxi!
When we arrived, we noticed that everyone was dressed in white. We bought a handful of flowers to leave at the Buddhist temple. As we walked to the temple, we saw a flock of chickens in a tree. We could hear the sounds of drums as we approached. The temple was all white, and so were the clothes of the people. They were circling the dagoba holding a long saffron cloth and chanting “Sadhu, sadhu, saa.” The smell of incense was everywhere. Leading the procession were five musicians with drums and horns. We placed our flowers in front of the dagoba and then walked to the Kataragama shrine. There we saw long lines of people with fruit coming to pray to the god Kataragama. We watched for a while until suddenly a loud bell rang over and over, and priests carrying a statue of Kataragama walked down a carpet into the room mobbed by pilgrims. We were carried forward by the crowds and saw people offering fruit and water to Kataragama. A temple priest took the fruit behind a curtain to bless it and then bring it back and return it to the people who offered it. I liked to imagine that there was a little man sitting behind the curtain eating all the fruit! At the front of the line, the priest said words in Sanskrit to us as a prayer, and tied a red protection cord around my wrist. As we exited the crowded site, I felt both overwhelmed and happy, because I had just seen so much, and everyone around us looked happy and excited to be there.