844 days, 20,256 hours, 1,215,360 minutes, or 72,921,600 seconds. That is the approximate duration of my world tour. I never wanted it to end and now, in a manner of speaking, I suppose it never has to. If you wish to go by country do so by clicking on one above. They are numbered in the order I visited them, more or less. If you enjoy reading about it even a tenth as much as I enjoyed living it then you will not have wasted your time. Grab a refreshing beverage, settle in a comfortable chair, and make a journey across the world, experiencing it as I did. Then get off your ass and check it out for yourself. You're not getting any younger.

The Universe Wouldn't Let Me Leave (Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka)

For a revised version of this post, go here.

Aug 22nd, 2009 - Packed up my things and attempted to go on my way. Before leaving Anuradhapura I'd hoped to get a look at a stupa I had missed but decided against it when I realized it was a bit out of my way. As I was leaving town I happened to pass the museum where I met Chandana. I figured if he were there I could honk and wave goodbye as I drove by. As it turned out both he and Chari were at the museum looking for prospective clients. I drove over to say hello. When Chari offered to take me to some ruins in a place known as Mihintale I knew I was not going anywhere. We went back to Chandana’s house for some tea before setting off.

Mihintale is famous for being the sight where King Devanampyia Tissa was converted to Buddhism by Mahinda, the son of a great Buddhist emperor. I was not taken to the main temple complex where most visit. Instead Chari showed me an ancient monastery that receives fewer visitors and even fewer western tourists. It is a special place and , at the risk of going mystical, one can almost feel the energy emanating from this area.

Chari explained to me that everything was built with both Buddhist principles and mathematics in mind. It was, and is, a place for mediation and contemplation. There are still monks living on the grounds. And those who wish to do so can come and stay for a day, week, month, etc. and sequester oneself in the small cave dwellings that have been used by those seeking enlightenment for a thousand years. Existence at this place is ascetic to say the least. A thin mat on a bed carved out of the rock is the sum total of your creature comforts. The place was designed with meditation in mind. Whether it be in your room, on a standing mediation platform nearby, or on the rocks on a cliff side chances are if you are a serious practitioner this place is Nirvana (pardon the pun). I was told that anyone may come and stay at no charge but be warned the monks will know if you are really meditating or not.

Buddhist monks rely on the kindest of their fellow man for sustenance. There is a building nearby at the bottom of the hill where pilgrims often come (from all over) to stay a day or two and provide food for the monks staying there. Otherwise the monks will hit the streets and beg for alms. There is no stigma to this as everyone knows that the wisdom seekers are merely seeking assistance on their path to enlightenment. Most are more than willing to assist.

After half a day spent exploring the hillside monastery we returned to Chandana’s home for some dinner, a hearty meal of Sri Lankan curry provided by his wife. Delicious and altogether very filling. I did not think I was a fan of curry. I was wrong.

Chandana and his wife invited me into their home and expected nothing in return, save friendship. On the surface you may not think this remarkable but I can assure you it is so. They are not rich people, after all this is Sri Lanka. They live in a small brick home with Chandana’s mother. He has recently began a sort of tourist guide apprenticeship under Chari’s tutelage but times have been difficult. The war that raged until recently was hard on tourism. For them to invite me into their home and offer me a bountiful meal (I was stuffed) was an act of unadulterated kindness. I offered to make a contribution as I did not want to take advantage of the situation but Chandana would hear none of it and was almost a bit insulted. He asked me if it were common practice in America to offer money to friend who has invited you for a meal. Of course this is not the case.

Beyond that the time they (Chari and Chandana) spent showing me around, providing explanations and insights regarding the ancient city and Buddhism is time they normally charge for. They are guides. However, they were content to spend time with a new friend and exchange ideas. I cannot emphasize enough how difficult a connection like this can often be in the developing world. Educational opportunities, social-economic status, and cultural differences can all work against having a true friendship. Chari and Chandana expect nothing from me and they are both highly intelligent. I’ve already mentioned that Chari taught himself French. Eight months ago Chandana barely spoke a word of English and now we are discussing philosophy and politics. Chandana told him that if he wanted to be a legitimate guide he would have to learn English and a ton of historical information concerning Sri Lanka. He has answered the call in staggering fashion.

The story of Chandana and his wife is the stuff of Hollywood. She is from the Kandy area of Sri Lanka and borne of a wealthy family. Chandana is from the other side of the tracks, so to speak. His wife’s parents (I am ashamed to say that I did not catch her name) had her future prearranged, at least as far as a mate goes but she wanted no part of this future. She had already witnessed the unhappiness her older sisters have experienced and has wholeheartedly eschewed such an existence. She was in love with the ‘wrong’ man but she was in love and that was the important thing. I neglected to ask where they met but what I do know is that Chandana made multiple attempts to ‘kidnap’ his true love. On two occasions when they attempted their escape they were stopped by the police, her parents were notified, and their hopes dashed. The key was to get out of Kandy province and outside the sphere of influence of her parents. Their third attempt was successful but in reality the escape was the easy part.

Chandana is not a rich man and his wife was accustomed to life of privilege. She had a most difficult time adjusting to the humble living conditions. Not only that her upbringing shielded her from many of the mundane domestic tasks that are part and parcel of a more plebeian existence. There would be no help from her parents. They refuse to speak to her so any sort of financial assistance is unfathomable. She gave up the family she loves and a life of monetary ease to be with the man she loves. And she must live with her decision as divorce is rather arduous undertaking in Sri Lanka and chastity is paramount to would be husbands. For these reasons there is no going back, even assuming her parents would let her return. Such a touching combination of sadness and joy is a rare thing indeed. Eleven months after their union they appear to be happy, hardships and all. I have no doubt that Chandana will make something of himself as he has all the intrinsic tools of success and he is extremely kindhearted. One of the real tragedies in this whole affair is the fact that her parents have never even met Chandana. For them he is not of suitable economic ilk and is not even worth considering. Very sad. My sense is if they were ever to meet him he would be able to melt the ice that they are encased in.

After dinner it was time for a return trip to the Ruvanvelisaya Stupa, this time with my friends. Anyone that visits Anuradhapura would be remiss if they did not venture about during the nighttime. The spiritual nature of the region intensifies at night. The stupa is built on hallowed ground and is a conduit for cosmic energy (there is a crystal on the pinnacle specifically designed for capturing this energy) which is one of the big reasons folks travel from far and wide to experience this place.

I cannot say I am totally on board with the idea of cosmic energy and the like but I can say that the sense of calm and well being is palpable here. To lay on the stone surrounding the stupa and set your mind free is an extremely rewarding experience. I was not aware of it but the stupa is open twenty four hours a day and tourists and pilgrims alike are welcome to sleep there. In fact many folks do in order to reek the benefits of the therapeutic nature of the place. Many people advanced in years come to absorb the healing energy. If I return to this place I may have to roll out the sleeping bag and have a snooze.

The next morning I went for a drive along the reservoirs (know as ‘tanks’) that line the area. From one such tank you can see three of the stupas. My friends had shown me the area the night before and I desired to see it in the morning light. It was truly sublime. I drove into the tank and in the midst of a pleasant breeze snapped a few photos and just stood there and tried to take it all in. Magnificent.

Before I set on my way I stopped in at Chandana’s house once again for a short chat and some more curry. It was delicious as always. Although it was difficult to leave I knew I must do it then or I think I would have whiled away the remainder of my month here wandering the ancient ruins. There would be nothing at all wrong with such a prospect but there are many things to see in Sri Lanka. I bode my friends a fond farewell in hopes that I will see them again. I have a feeling it will be so.

Do I believe in fate? Well, anything is possible. If I had not lost the key to my motorcycle then Chandana would never have offered to show me the way to the person that found it and I would have never met him or Chari. If I had not unintentionally passed the museum on my way out of town I would not have encountered my friends again and would have missed out on a wonderful experience and deeper insights into Buddhism and the surrounding sites. I would also have missed out open extraordinary kindness of Chari and Chandana and his wife. What a tragedy that would have been. This place, along with my new friends, have touched me in a way I have trouble describing with mere words. It is rare and it is special and I will treasure it always. It is the reason I do this. It is what fills me with life.

I had considered driving north through what was very recently a war zone but decided against it for two reasons: I have only one month and there are plenty of fascinating stops in the area I am in; and I was not sure how much of a hassle the journey north would entail. As it turns out I made the right call. I met two woman working and living in Sri Lanka (I am leaving out any sort of details just to be safe). There is not a chance in hell of the military letting me pass all the way to Jaffna alone on my motorcycle. I would need special permission to get past the checkpoint at a town called Medawachchiya. There are too many things the gov’t does not want foreign eyes to see, not the least of which is the 250,000 Tamil people living in squalor inside the ‘refugee’ camps near Vavuniya. Not even NGO workers are allowed inside the camps. Some months ago French medical aid workers were expelled from the country for reporting what they saw. In fact, I could be expelled for writing these words.

For the last week I have been trying to assess the situation here following the conclusion of the war. According to the locals I’ve spoken with everything is just hunkey dorey. War’s over. Let the good times roll. And I have no doubt that their sentiments are sincere, if not grossly inaccurate. Crushing a 25 year insurgency is bound to leave a few bitter people scattered about the countryside. From what I hear the way people are being treated in these camps is doing nothing to promote reconciliation. This country still has a long way to go before anything approaching normal can be achieved.

Are the Tamil Tigers really finished or will there be a resurgence? Who knows? Perhaps I should be concerned but you will be surprised to discover that no westerner has ever been killed as a result of the hostilities. Both sides made it a point to avoid tourists and tourist areas. The Tamil Tigers are (were?) especially cognizant of the importance of western money not only as far as tourism goes but also of the funds that they received from the outside in support of their cause. I was even told that if a suicide bomber entered a bus with a westerner on board that they would get off and seek a different target. The running joke became that if you want to stay safe (as far as the locals are concerned) then follow the white person. I cannot make this shit up.

One of the reasons certain areas are off limits is due to the existences of mines. Remember Wilpattu National Park? Apparently it is heavily mined and the military is currently conducting demining operations. It is rumored that they may also be trying to smoke out some remain elements of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers). Guess it is a good thing I did not try to drive through the park (I was told it was possible).

So I chose to head east to the seaside city of Trincomalee. The road to the coast was beautiful and brought me through picturesque reservoirs and rolling green hills. If I was looking to see evidence of recent conflict I found it. There were checkpoints everywhere and I have not see so many military personnel since I was in the army. Twice I was asked to show my license by policeman, although I must admit that they were more than cordial. One of them wanted to have a beer with me. In the end I chose not to stay in Trincomalee or the surrounding beach towns (Uppuveli or Nilaveli), not out of fear or because of the heavy military presence, but because I was not feeling the vibe. Although the beaches are beautiful the hotels are lackluster at best (and pricey) and there is not a whole lot to do besides. On top of that it was a strange mix of well-to-do Sri Lankans and pretentious Western tourists. Not my cup of tea so I headed for another of the ancient cities known as Polonnaruwa.

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