(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Entran¢e Fees

Sri Lanka Part Nine

Sri Lanka Part Eight

Kandy revealed itself in the morning, pressed against a wide sunny lake invisible the night before. We left our hotel — the cheapest of a certain class in Kandy, with dark gray carpet and heavy curtains and clearly designed for vampires — for the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. The entrance fee: more than 10 US dollars — a shock after driving through towns where so much could buy dinner for a week. “We’ve come from America,” we suggested, readjusting our sarongs. Half price. Is it okay to get a deal at a temple?

The temple is stunning, not for its size or for the goldenness of its Buddha statue, but for the smells of floral offerings on the second floor, and the beautiful devotion with which they are laid. Common practice is to touch the flowers with flat hands and fingers outstretched, to lean forward to touch them again further along the table, then to pray with palms pressed together above the heart, and lift them to the forehead. I stayed bent over to smell the flowers. “Wow, this American is very devoted,” they might have thought. “Mmmmmm,” I was thinking.

North of Kandy are the 200-odd stone steps that lead to the cave temples of Dambulla. The climb is hot with sarongs below the knees in anticipation of temple dress code, but tickets, they told us at the top, are sold at the bottom. Maybe next time.

Close to the bottom, every few steps is one of Sri Lanka’s impoverished, begging, demanding that you ask yourself why give to some and not to all? I gave to some and not to all. Not a very good karmic track record that day.

Further north is the giant climbable rock, Sigiriya. Twenty-two hundred steps carved into the magma climb to a terraced plateau. That, too, with its one entry guarded by government patrols, had an entry fee: thirty-three hundred rupees, the teller told us — more than 30 dollars. To climb a rock.

“But I’m doing the work!” I squabbled with the nice woman. “You should be paying me!”

She smiled good-naturedly, but told me that’s just how it was. “Sri Lankans have to pay, too,” she added.
“How much?”
“Fifty rupees.”

It was hard, after many, many hours of driving toward this rock, sustained over humps and ditches by the future satisfaction of having crested it, not to get a little belligerent. The saintly teller smiled calmly throughout.

“In your house, are there stairs?”
She nodded.
“When people come and visit, do they pay you to climb them?”
No, she told me. No they do not.

I apologize, if she’s out there, but I don’t regret struggling against the nearly seven thousand percent tourist charge. A traveling group of local highschoolers wanted to help, but we could never look Sri Lankan enough, they said, even though we wore traditional Buddhist sarongs and flip flops — they were in shorts and jeans and t-shirts that said Pepsi.

So we drove around the side of the giant area, along a dirt road that circled the moat. Signs made it very clear: crocodiles swim here. We parked the car, poorly hidden, and snuck across a grassy land bridge that lead over a hill and down into a muddy thicket, run by mosquitoes, which, I thought, if we headed the right way, might open onto the big rock. Shoes sank into the soup of the overgrown underbrush; thorns clawed at skin and clothes and drew blood to attract the tigers that, if we believed that sort of thing, might be lurking. A clearing never appeared. Maybe next time.

We drove away, further north to where my mom had warned of tigers on the prowl, thirty years ago when rocks were climbed for free. But now, said a tuk-tuk driver, this ancient town famous for twelfth-century ruins and the massive figure of a sleeping Buddha is home only to monkeys (and people, and buffalo). “Tigers?” he laughed. “No, no!”

Polonnaruwa was also home to our only good deal. The portly friend of the tuk-tuk driver was selling package tickets for all the major sites in Sri Lanka, including the stupid rock we had left far behind, for a fraction of the price. It looked suspicious. The scrawny driver stuck his head in the driver’s side window, bartering, but was immediately rebuked by the fat man in harsh Singhalese. The fat man’s brother worked in the park of the sleeping Buddha, he told us. (Doesn’t everyone’s brother?). “I am Buddhist. I don’t lie.”

And so it was. It was evening, and the park was slowly closing. Sunset orange and pink closed over the tops of 800 year-old temples and the faces of the many Buddhas, sitting, standing, sleeping. We put our cameras down and climbed ruined staircases to nowhere to jump off them. The tuk-tuk driver let me drive.

More photos of Sri Lanka here…

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