Narrow steps, by both width and length’s standards, gave way before us. Down and down we went, waiting patiently for the elderly Sri Lankan women to continue their pilgrimage. Some might have seen two able-bodied youngsters and assumed the women were slowing us down, but they’d be wrong. Truthfully, we were looking for any excuse to creep slowly down Adam’s Peak, or Sri Pada, or Our Final Demise, as we had begun to call it.
Sri Pada, the locals’ name for the mountain, actually translates to ‘Sacred Footprint’. Adam’s Peak over the years has accumulated a massive amount of stories surrounding its origin and meaning. The original Buddhist story claims that the stone footprint at the top of the mountain is Buddha’s himself. Muslims, and some Christians, contend that it was Adam who planted his feet there. While other Christians say it was St. Thomas, the spreader of Christianity in the east. In any case, these all combine to create a trail in which thousands of pilgrims trek each year for spiritual reasons, and in no way accounts for the thousands that simply like to torture themselves in new and inventive ways. That does account, however, to why there were so many slow-moving elderly individuals currently traversing the slopes of Sri Lanka’s fifth highest peak every year.
Songs and chants wafted through the air as small groups of Buddhist and Hindu wayfarers sang their way calmly back towards Hatton… and flat ground. Janae and I listened but instead chose a quiet walk, if you can call it that. It was a really more of an awkward rotating slow dance. There were three ways we made our way down:
- Face the right side railing. Put left foot down first, then right, feet together, and then left again.
- Face the left side railing. Put right foot down first, then left, feet together, and then right again.
- Facing straight down and either taking one step at a time or taking steps as you would a regular stroll.
You might think, as we did initially, that you would be like one of those men I mentioned in Part 1 who had been carrying the elderly woman down the mountain at blazing speeds. You also might think that you could run a marathon because you walk to work every day. You’d be mistaken friend. Between the grade of the slope and the quality of the broken steps, that would be a mistake you would only make once. Even the best of ‘The Descenders” could only attempt that brisk pace for 25-30 steps before slowing down. We on the other hand took an alternating route.
We took 10 steps facing left, 10 steps facing right, then 2 or 3 in the middle. Why did we do so few in the middle? You try looking straight down a thousand steps and not get crippling vertigo. Despite the increase in tempo compared to our nighttime climb we were in no way moving fast.
Life is full of small challenges. Every day we start our day with the challenge of not hitting the snooze button. We are challenged with what to eat for breakfast and what to bring for lunch. We are challenged with being kind to those at work that rub us the wrong way. We are challenged by the day-to-day details that chip away at our patience. Our lives are filled with small challenges. Descending 5000 steps one-by-one however, and this is a big however, is most certainly not a small challenge. It is a BIG challenge. And what makes matters worse is when little 90-year-old granny over there booking down the steps is making you look like a chump. How did her muscles sustain it?
Our body has hundreds of muscles. The number of muscles in the human body varies from about 650 to 800, most of those muscles existing in the upper body. As for muscle use, studies show the average individual only puts daily vigorous strain on about 5 % of their muscles. As we lowered ourselves down Adam’s Peak step-by-excruciating-step we experienced what it was like to take what felt like 50% of our body and use them vigorously near 1,000 times their threshold. NOT RECOMMENDED.
At the point where Janae was hitting her physical wall I was hitting my mental and emotional wall. The new day’s dawn had awakened colors and sights we had little chance of previously noticing under the cover of dark. Janae on multiple occasions pointed out the beautiful world around the trail. The only problem was that I wanted none of it. With an hour left until the base, I was done. I just wanted to be finished. It reached a head when Janae pointed out a small frog that a group of people had gathered around to watch. I replied, “Uh-huh. Let’s keep moving.” Wrong answer.
I won’t go into the details but we had a very interesting conversation that led to the agreement that we should both stay silent for the remainder. We were tired on so many levels. Our exhaustion had transcended so much more than just physical pain. We began climbing this mountain thinking one thing, and now, in the depths of fatigue we realized how far off our thinking was. Finally, and quietly, we reached Niroshan – who after our eight-hour endeavor seemed to be a distant memory. We immediately fell asleep in the car.
Hours later, now fully rested, I was able to think back and reflect on the events of that morning: the highs, the lows, and the literal ups and downs. I was inspired by my future wife’s courage and dedication. I was heartened to think of what we had accomplished together. But most of all, I discovered two key things.
First of all, I realized the obstacles we plan for are rarely the obstacles that will inevitably challenge us most. The peaks we look upon and wonder how we could ever accomplish such feats will pale in comparison to life’s real struggles, life’s real pains. I hear so many people try and equate life to a marathon. ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint’, they tell me. In reality, it’s neither.
I know what they mean. They’re thinking that life is long, with many hiccoughs along the way, and we must endure. But it is an endurance we expect. We expect training for a marathon to be grueling. We expect it to take mental toughness. We expect to fail and fall and have to get back up again. But that is where the comparison between life and a marathon ends for me.
Some challenges of a marathon might be unexpected, but in the end, the mental and emotional toughness needed are all part of the plan. Compare that to Adam’s peak? The way up was my marathon. The way down was life. True life challenges you in ways you would and could never imagine. Real, authentic, inspiring, gorgeous life cannot be imagined. Which brings me to my second realization.
If on the way up we find ourselves – our limits and our ability to surpass those limits – then on the way down we find God. The physical, mental, and emotional duress experienced when we wade through everyday life matters little if when we stop and look around we aren’t surrounded by love.
Janae and I were able to accomplish something amazing in scaling that peak. It was truly a testament to her dedication that despite any and all fatigue, quitting was never an option. What truly mattered most, however, was that at the end of the trip – despite the frustrations and all else that happened – what was left was us. What was left was Janae and I, dead tired, asleep in the back of a silver Toyota… together.
On a side note, it is fitting to think, during this season of Easter, of hardships and ascension. Whether you are a Christian or not, we all agree that Christ’s walk to Calvary was one of the most harrowing ordeals anyone on this earth has ever suffered. But what’s interesting is that throughout His ministry he asks us time and time again, knowing full well what he will eventually endure, that he wants us to live for Him. He wants us to love and live in this gift of life. He challenges us not simply to endure the hardships or the challenges that each step may bring, but to live and do so in abundance. He gives us hope to live each day with joy and peace. He gives us a reason to still find beauty and light in this dark world. So in this time of joy, I pray we may all find that light at the end of the tomb.
Adam’s Peak, or Sri Pada, is located in the west hill country of Sri Lanka. Surrounded by tea plantations and rubber farms, it stands roughly 2200m. It is only Sri Lanka’s 5th highest peak but few involve such a rigorous ascent as Adam’s Peak. It’s 5520 steps are guaranteed to exhaust you in more ways than one. However rough the scaling of such a mount would promise, the toughest part would be one we had never expected.
Janae and I were driven to the base of the mountain and arrived near 1:30 in the morning. The night was vaguely illuminated by the crescent moon, which was doused further by our half-sleep daze. We had awoken an hour and a half prior and chose a continued attempt at slumber in the curvy car ride to the peak. Niroshan walked us to the start of the trail and assured us that the path up the mountain was lit and there were vendors along the way to keep us headed in the right direction. If that failed we could always just follow the wild dogs scrounging the trail for tourist scraps.
The night air was chilly while burnt incense and garbage grabbed hold of our nostrils. The odors molested us little after almost 2 full days in Sri Lanka. It seemed the government had elected a national scent and declared it be sprayed daily. Either way, we began the hike in very good spirits despite getting only 4 hours of tattered sleep. The trail was large, well lit, and the people we passed friendly. It also eased the apprehensions we had started with, upon looking at the steep climb, when our current path was only slightly tilted. The four hours that we were told it would take to hike the trail would be nothing at this incline… but it didn’t last.
After passing the first of many Buddhist statues that speckled the trail we hit our first steps. Those steps would continue to plague us the rest of our journey. Up and up we went into the starry night. We could tell our energy was failing at hour two when our conversations became fewer and fewer. Where once we had blazed up the hillside with amazing speed, now blazing by us were the other hikers who had mistakenly chosen this for a pleasant early morning stroll. It didn’t help that the steps seemed to grow proportionally to the rate at which our energy shrank. This is also where we witnessed something truly unique.
Four men were literally jogging down the mountain and they were carrying something. Lined up in rows of two right behind one another, they had a wooden pole on top of their inner shoulders. As they got closer and closer we saw that there was a dark blue sheet wrapped around the middle of the two poles connecting them. What further struck us was that embraced in that sheet was a small human being. The four men were carrying an elderly woman of about 80 years old down the mountain in a makeshift stretcher. I instantly saw the look of panic in Janae’s eyes.
Would that be her? Would she be rescued like the elderly woman? Would she collapse midway up the mountain and be carried off the slope like a war-wounded soldier at the Battle of Antietam? For the first time that night, I saw a look that said, ‘Maybe we should turn back’. Truthfully, I wasn’t all that surprised. What surprised me was what happened next.
Janae took another step forward. And another. And another. And another. She had distanced herself a good 15 steps higher and counting. I was speechless. It wasn’t until she turned back and asked cooly, “Are you coming?” that I was jolted out of my stupor. The strength of this woman was astounding. She was dead tired and near vomiting from exhaustion and yet she continued to climb… cheerfully!
We often see and hear stories of men and women getting into situations in which they were ill prepared. We witness their confidence and arrogance at first and see it dwindle with each passing moment as hardship chips away at their conceptions of possibility. What I had imagined before starting this climb I barely remembered now. What I did remember was what I didn’t think about. I didn’t think about how my greatest challenge this morning would be of the non-physical variety. My confidence that we could do this quite easily was shattered when I realized that the “we” I had thought of was, in all reality, “me”.
I realized at step 3000 that this was going to be one of many of life’s peak’s that we’d have the opportunity to conquer together. So putting aside “me”, I reached back my hand to do this as “we”. Little by little we overcame each of those stone barriers. Ten steps here, thirty-five steps there. Our hands were sweaty and the rest breaks numerous. Janae’s thighs ached and her heart was racing, but we didn’t stop.
I encouraged her to keep her head down, to focus on the next step. It mattered not the shear depth of the climb ahead, or the orange light at the top of the mountain that signified the end, what took hold of our thoughts and demeanor was that “next step”. We focused not on the peak but on the present. Hand-in-hand we rose. The elderly hikers descending the steps smiled and awed at the physical union we had formed, but we paid them no mind. We trudged on. We went forward. For what seemed like ages we went. Then finally, as we dared to glance upward, we witnessed a sweet sight if ever there was one: The Top.
We had spent more than four hours moving in an upward direction and that orange light was nearly upon us. The only problem was the final hundred or so steps were the steepest of all. If that wasn’t daunting enough we felt a jolt of panic course through our veins as we witnessed the morning sky. The dark blues of night had begun to morph into the soft blush and tangerine sparkle of a new day. It would not bode well to have spent 4 ½ hours scaling a mountain to just miss the most glorious part of the day. We had to go up and we had to go fast.
I grabbed the side railing with one hand and Janae with the other and we made our final ascent. The orange light grew brighter and brighter as we neared the summit. We triumphantly made it to the final step. And as we perched there reveling our victory, as if signaling the end of our journey, the light turned off. The sun shown enough light. The night was no longer necessary. We had reached the top, that glorious top.
Ten minutes later the sun congratulated us for our persistence by presenting himself in glorious fashion. The colors of that daybreak sky were like Christmas morning. The fog washing over the valley like New Year’s Eve, promising exciting things to come. Despite how crowded the small peak had become by the many weary travelers we felt like the only two people in the world, gazing out over cliffs of wonder and beauty. We didn’t want the sun to continue its own climb, but alas, it did.
The rosy pinks and violet reds gave over to silky light blues, which signaled to us that it was time to move on. The day was ahead of us. Suddenly there was a second dawn, the realization crested into our minds that we were only halfway done this mountain. We still had to go back down. The top step, the one we had just minutes before claimed so joyously, was now a beacon of intending doom and apprehension.
We had partially fitted ourselves for the climb, but we had in no way mentally prepared for the descent. And we certainly had no clue the de-climb would challenge us in far greater ways than the ascension. But despite our reservations… down we went.
There is a widespread contagion sweeping across Sri Lanka. It is highly infectious and is primarily contracted by unprepared tourists visiting the island. And sadly, there is little hope for those infected. Twenty minutes out of the airport and I had already caught the disease… and it nearly ruined us.
Janae and I arrived at the airport in Colombo at approximately 8 pm. Customs took approximately 10 minutes to clear. We were then handed a SIM card with phone number to use temporarily while on vacation. We did not have to claim anything despite the massive amount of produce and snacks stuffed into my backpack. The snacks was safe. They had come from Abu Dhabi. Sri Lankan food we had heard, on the other hand, not so much.*
Many people had told me to steer clear of eating or drinking anything that may have come in contact with the local water. Sri Lanka, like many developing countries, and even some developed countries, has a problem finding potable water for its residents. For this reason, and for the fact that Janae is a nurse, we had read up on many of the illnesses and such that plague tropical countries. Tidbits of information on Malaria and Dengue Fever crept up our consciousness as we left the airport into the muggy early-April night.
Our driver Niroshan, which we had conveniently employed for the week, took our luggage and packed them into his air-conditioned silver Toyota. The streets were narrow, the automobiles many, and there was a cow on the side of the road – Was that a cow? Yes, Niroshan replied calmly. Do they love and worship them here like they do in India, I asked.
The first symptoms of Foot in Mouth disease had begun to take hold.
We made small talk about where we were all from, which then morphed into why we had chosen Sri Lanka. All the while, thoughts on food and water–borne illnesses still permeated my prefrontal lobe. I asked another question. Has anyone ever gotten sick in your car? Niroshan took it for a question of car sickness, of which he replied in the negative. I clarified. I meant has anyone gotten sick from the food you eat here? Like thrown up in you car, bad water kind of sick?
Not only was I getting nowhere with these questions, but I began to develop a slight pain in my lower right knee. I swear it had not been there before.
We continued our small talk about Sri Lanka when the conversation led towards talk of a Sri Lankan city called Kandy. He asked us whether we would like to visit there on our trip. I replied, “I haven’t heard many good things about Kandy. Don’t really see the need to go there.” A shooting pain in my knee made me sit up straight. I looked down to see Janae’s hand pinching my leg furiously with a disapproving look on her face.
It seems that one of the symptoms of Foot in Mouth disease is short-term memory loss. Not two minutes before, in our previous conversation, Niroshan had mentioned that he currently lives in Kandy with his wife and children. I had just told this pleasant little Sri Lankan man that his hometown was of no interest to me or to anyone else I have been in contact with. I attempted a quick antidote to soothe the burning situation by saying, “But I’m sure it’s very nice. What do you recommend?”
Once more… crickets.
In retrospect, it is a good thing that we were paying this man to drive us or we just may have had the quickest trip in spring break history. Either way, for the next 15 minutes, as we drove the rest of the way to our hotel, I let Janae do the talking. Because apparently, I needed a vaccination for my disease. Niroshan had already taken his shots.
*Disclaimer – We had ZERO issues with food, water, or any related illnesses throughout our trip. Most of the drinking water there was bottled and certified by the bottling companies. It even had certification numbers. The places we stayed were clean and extremely sanitary. And after the first day there was little to no concern of any water-related illness.
From the start let’s get one thing clear – I am the last of nine children.
This is where you would say… ‘WHOA! Nine?!?’ Then you ask me some awkward question pertaining to procreation and frequency of parental interactions, of which I would uncomfortably say, ‘Uh-huh’. Eventually you move on to something more meaningful, such as, ‘what was it like growing up in such a huge family’. And that, my friend, is where we begin.
All of us McShains came from the same two people: Mama & Papa McShain. They are amazing and wonderful and loving and inspiring and so much more. However, they are NOT rich. And no, I didn’t have any benevolent grandparents showering me with gifts and birthday money. My lovely grandmothers passed away when I was young and I never knew my grandfathers, both having passed before I was born. So my darling parents were left to foot the bill on their own for nearly 4 decades of child rearing. The price of raising a child has not exactly declined in that time period.
In 1970, three years after my oldest sister was born, the average cost to raise a child to the age of 17 was about $50,000. Today the average cost of raising a child to 17 in a house bringing in less than 50K a year is almost $150,000. Having a second child, however, is reported to decrease that cost by about 20%. Having a 3rd, 4th, and so on, incur similar percentage decreases. I don’t know if there’s been a study to figure out how much a 9th little one would run. I believe it might’ve cost the same as a baby bamboo plant. Which, ironically, could eventually substitute as a toy later on. Money saved!
The point is that we weren’t living a life of luxury. Which is why when an Etihad Airways receptionist, unbeknownst to me, switched my fiancé and my economy tickets to Pearl Business Class I was a little skeptical. We were flying to Sri Lanka for Spring Break and like all previous flights I had ever taken, and like all previous McShains, we did not fly first class. At least not the McShains I grew up around.
I quickly collected the tickets and shuffled Janae to the security gate expecting problems. Alas, we get to the ticket and passport checkpoint – the first line of airport security and defense – and they informed us Janae’s bag was too heavy. I knew it! I knew it was too good to be – Wait? What’s that? We get to go through a private security area for business travelers? Awww yeah!
The Business class security was red carpets and smiles all the way. I don’t know if I had to take off my shoes but if I did I couldn’t tell. I was floating on air. At the gate, it was straight to the front of the embarkation line. We passed by the weary mothers and their snot-nosed complainers. We also passed by their small children.
We sat down having traveled less than 4 steps down the aisle, and were instantly greeted by Haruko, an inimitable Japanese man. He couched very close to us. Here it is, I thought. Here’s the moments he tells us we’re in the wrong seats. I began gathering my things in a very bitter fashion when he asked, ”Would you like a refreshment to begin your journey?”
YES! YES I WOULD! CHAMPAGNE PLEASE!
After regaining his hearing from my over-excited drink request, he politely retrieved our bubbly and placed them on a secret table designed for just an occasion. This was gonna be good.
The flight got under way and Haruko offered us an aperitif before our dinner. I didn’t not take him up on it. While I sat sipping my beverage, I barely felt the engine pull onto the runway. The slight rumble of the tires retreating into the underbelly of the plane was hushed by the massage component of our seats, which were pleasantly reclined in my opinion. Although later I found out I had not even scratched the surface of my recliner’s abilities to recline. 15 minutes into the air, and down my seat went… but not to sleep. I would not waste a moment of this glorious upgrade.
The food was scrumptious, the drinks flowed like wine from the beaches of capastrana, and oh, yeah, Janae was good company too. Did I tell you about the reclining seat? I was basically lying down. Like a bed. I was in a bed in the sky. A bed with a butler… named Haruko… who was Japanese. Yeeeeaaaaaahhhhhh. Business class.
Eventually, as do all good things, we landed and the flight doors opened. But despite the singular tear that fell from my right eye, as I looked back at the seat that had embraced me so compassionately, a thought inspired hope within me. And so, as I hugged Haruko firmly and gently slipped a tip into his back bottom pocket I left the plane high-spirited. One day, maybe not for some time, maybe years from now, I would be back. I would strut past security, amble coolly through the boarding gate, and I would sit down in my business class seats. And yes, I would sip champagne in a seat that both reclined AND massaged…
And maybe Janae would be there too.
Champagne in the sky. Powdered donuts. Horse families. 5220 steps. Breakfast on a hill. Concert in the clouds. Burning trash. Chained elephants. Maternal monkeys. Sarongs. Saris. Peacock calling. Tea dust. Deadly waves. Turtle babies. Private beaches. Frisky female dressers. Out of the Silent Planet. Cricket world champions. “Chenge the world” – Bob Marley. Tsunami survivors. Ginger Sambo. Chris Christie. Safari “palaces”. Lion beer. Dog packs. Mud huts. Shared bananas. Bugged vans. Small taxis. Big smiles. Long winding goodbyes. Short storms. And memories that will last past photos.
These are all part of mine and my fiancé’s trip to Sri Lanka. Over the next few weeks I will write just a few of the countless stories and revelations that came from a week in paradise. Here’s a taste…
A man was driving home from work one day speeding along when suddenly he had to slam on the breaks. In the middle of the road was an elderly man ambling along with a rope in his right hand. The infuriated driver jumped out of his car, after swerving to avoid hitting the old man, and began to let out a long list of grievances.
“What are you DOING walking down the middle of a busy road like this?!?” he yelled.
“Uggghh!!!! Don’t you know you could’ve been killed? I was traveling at nearly 80 miles per hour. You would’ve been a speck on my windshield at that speed. I know you old birds aren’t with the times and all but this is just ridiculous.” he spat laughingly.
Despite the onslaught, the old man kept on walking throughout the screaming and shouting. The driver saw this as a cue to up the volume of his voice as he continued his rant.
“There is literally a sidewalk RIGHT THERE! Look! RIGHT THERE! Are you deaf, blind, or just plain stupid? If you would just move your wrinkled self 20 feet to the right we would have no problems at all. None!”
At seeing the man’s indifference he boomed with hands clenched in fists of rage, “You’re not even LISTENING!”
Finally, he grabbed the old man by his shoulders and shook him, violently letting out a loud,
“WHY AREN’T YOU PAYING ATTENTION TO ME?!?”
“Friend!?!” the old man said with an astonished smile on his face, noticing the driver for the first time. But as the old man looked around him, then at the rope in his hand, his smile vanished and he asked,
“When did this road get here… and what happened to my camel?”
The Arabian Peninsula, and the United Arab Emirates specifically, are an extremely rich area, culturally and geographically speaking. Their art, architecture, and history reach back thousands of years. Which is why I had to go see Timothy Power’s lecture on the ‘UAE and Islamic History’. It’s too bad most everyone else was only interested in the free buffet.
It was a Thursday night lecture sponsored by New York University Abu Dhabi. Similar to TEDtalks, they have speakers come and give presentations on different topics of academic and social interest. In the weeks to come there will be talks ranging from ‘Autism: New Mutations and Gene Therapy’ to ‘Whispers of Abu Dhabi in the Oral Tradition’. The latter will be given in a library.
This particularly night we had the pleasure of Tim Power, an assistant professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at local Zayed University. He gave a detailed history of the ebb and flow of the Arabian Peninsula, with a moderate focus on the UAE. His talk searched through centuries old archaeological finds and the interconnectedness of the UAE and Asia through Indian trade routes. He broached the complicated topic of Islam’s effect on the Arab region and even brought in bits of Nestorian Christianity’s influence. It was a captivating and detailed account of the boom and bust of such an influential culture.
Sadly it lasted only an hour.
When the lecture was done the floor was opened to questions from the audience. Like always, some members asked poignant questions based on the speaker’s points, some asked seemingly unrelated questions about things they were interested in, and a few intellectuals simply wished to state their own knowledge on the subject. None of these really caught me by surprise; I’ve seen enough public forums to believe otherwise. The session ended with a boisterous round of applause, but what stumped me was what followed.
After the claps had ceased the audience cleared quite quickly which jammed the two small exit doors. I immediately thought Tim had made his way to the entrance and, like church members stopping to shake the priest’s hand, this had caused some congestion. But Tim was not at the door. He was still by the stage talking rigorously to a few fellow professor-types. If he wasn’t the reason for the crowd, then what was?
My buddy and I snaked through the multitude to find the unexpected culprit. The hotel hosting the event had provided a buffet… for free. Normally, I would’ve been like, “Score!” But I had a Korean Olympic party to attend. That’s Korean food and Olympics, not a party for the Korean Olympians, that’s next week. Anyway, we passed on the buffet nibblets.
However, it dawned on us, once we had sidestepped the crowd while overhearing a few conversations, that there was a larger hum and debate about the food being served than of the lecture just given. This Assistant Professor at Zayed University had most likely spent weeks combing over the fine details of this proposed impactful presentation and for what? So the 80 or so guests could scamper out quickly after the final question to fill their bellies? I laughed. It was all I could do.
Compassionately, I understand that it was 8 p.m. and most of the crowd had yet to have dinner. But the focus of the evening was not Intercontinental Hotel’s tapas menu. The focus was UAE and Islamic History. Truthfully, when thinking back, there lies within me a slight sadness. Maybe I just don’t understand. Maybe I want people to take more from life. And maybe its because while I am still feeding on the material Timothy Power provided, the devoured hors d’oeuvres of that night’s buffet have long left the attendants’ systems.
Or maybe I’m just hungry. And you know how I get when I’m hungry.