Cherry Blossom Festival in DC today. Peak of the blossoms! Love going downtown for this every year.
Appalachian Trials Blogger
Cherry Blossom Festival in DC today. Peak of the blossoms! Love going downtown for this every year.
I was so high on life I almost couldn’t breathe. Grinning like a maniac, I stomped through mud puddles as big as I was and tried to ignore my pack weight. All of a sudden, I could see it – the plaque I’d heard so much about, seen countless photos of:
Hello, Springer Mountain and the start of the Trail! I giggled, throwing my hands up and looking across the mountains.
I finished my six months with an email to my boss from Greece after four other countries, telling him I was ready enough to come back to work. I started hiking knowing that the AT had plans for me, was going to teach me a lot – and it did. Life doesn’t go according to plan, and there is simple beauty in that. I didn’t get very far on the Trail last year – though that depends a bit on who you ask. I’ll finish it someday.
As Ent, I met fun-loving fellow hikers, new friends, Trail Angels, and the part of me that can sleep through the night alone in a tent, throw a mean foodbag line, and wake up to snow on the ground with laughter (even though we went to Town that day). ACO became my partner in crime for awhile, until she hitched a ride out. We healed most of our homesickness and what-did-we-get-ourselves-into together, finding a sunny day to keep going. The hiking community is extraordinary: everyone’s got your back, and you have theirs. Hitch a ride, goof off in town, stand drooling in a grocery store at the endless food you can’t fit in your pack. Recognize what people look like after a shower. On what became my last full day on the Trail, I ran, laughing, around camp to get every single inch of the footpath under my belt – then watched as five others followed suit. I hiked two 12-milers back to back, and groaned when my body protested. I hiked through 2 and a half solid days of rain, nursed hot spots, and managed to burn oatmeal.
And I miss it every day. This surprises non-Trail people. After all, I left it. It was rainy, and cold, and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done – true. But I loved it, and leaving it was just as hard. Mountain air is freeing. Campfires are like blankets to tuck you in at night. There is a wild sort of joy in carrying everything you need on your back. And fresh spring water? Nothing can compare.
Once I got back, I had to go again. I bounced around the US for awhile, and then embarked on a new journey: Southeast Asia. I visited my best friend in Hong Kong, joined Habitat for Humanity in Sri Lanka, toured Siem Reap and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and spent a couple random nights in Thailand before flying home via Hawaii. Soon after that, my mom and I went to Greece to fulfill a 10-year dream. All of them hold special memories to me.
But the Trail – the Trail is another home. I miss it most when I’m not really paying attention, and all of a sudden it hits me: a fresh breeze, walking in my hiking boots, dreaming of times when I wouldn’t have to be afraid of getting hit by cars.
I feel happier than when I started a year ago. I’m more content. So for all you hikers setting off this year, cherish it. You may not finish, and that’s okay. Push yourself and give it your all, though: chances like this are rare.
PS – in honor of my Trail-iversary, I dyed my hair again, more purplish this time:
This was one of the harder mornings for me. A rude awakening from the weekend, but I was back at my favorite worksite. It’s hard to explain why I’ve enjoyed working there so much. Maybe just a combination of the masons, who humor me so well, the sweet, sweet grandmother, the neighborhood girl who is always there. Something about it. Anyway the morning was a lot of dirt moving, and at one point one of the masons actually told me to stop and get water. I must’ve looked bad! It really was a mountain of dirt to bring the floor level up.
Pawani, the young girl there, decided to become a look-alike of me. She found some leftover arm covers I’ve been using to protect my forearms, and a khaki baseball cap, and even some tiny leather gloves, then added my sunglasses for the complete look. It was really sweet.
Later in the morning, she made me a sort of keychain out of a palm leaf. I also tried to learn 1 through 10 in Sinhala. Still a work in progress. Lunch was fast and we quickly went back to work. The afternoon was one of my favorites of the trip. 5 to 6 neighborhood girls – and 1-2 boys? – came over and in our playing, we essentially had a dance party. John and I danced with them for a solid hour, even an hour and a half. It was like dance on command – we were not allowed to be still. It was a lot of fun, and we helped tamp down the floor, but it was also exhausting.
Tom did the work and John and I provided…entertainment I guess. Something that sticks out on this trip is how consistently happy I am. We’re working incredibly hard, and it’s more hot and humid that I’ve ever experienced, but I smile and laugh so much. I know it’s a vacation, and I’ve had all this time off work, but I’m happy. Of course, things still affect me, I can be annoyed or sad or homesick, of course, but overall I’m happy. Maybe I should take up more volunteering when I get home. Trail duty. Something.
So after dancing we had tea, which felt totally undeserved, but it was delicious. Then it was back to more dirt and tamping without the tamping tool. We also tried straight sugarcane, chewing on it to get all the sweetness out. Then there was more mortar-mixing, and also tasting mangoose (?), a purple fruit with a thick casing around the fleshy fruit, kind of like a lychee. All too soon the afternoon was over. Pawani asked for one of my purple hair ties clipped to my backpack, which have been functionless since this short hair. One of the masons, the assistant, was really curious about my hanging Purell, on my backpack.
He took it off and Tom opened his hands to squirt some on. Then we made hand-rubbing motions, so he rubbed his hands together then smelled them. He was so surprised, I gave it to him. We tried to explain about killing germs, but it didn’t translate well. We climbed back into the van and showered at the hotel. I wound up going out again with Brigit, Amanda, and Charlie. We walked down to Rodeo Pub, next to Tastee’s. The french fries there were delicious. I tried a new cider called Savanna Dry, which was okay. My tomato, cheese, and basil panini was great, though the cheese was a little odd. After dinner we went to gelato, but it was closed for dinner. Determined, we waited by shopping at a touristy but nice gift shop. I really liked the masks they had in there, but the prices were steep. Of course, “for you, 40% off.” I was deciding between two –one had its eyes closed, which was really cool, and the other had wonderful colors. So they cut the price down to $64 for both, which seemed like a good deal. I’m pretty excited to put them up, but a little nervous they’ll break in my backpack. I’ll be really careful to pack extra clothing [update: neither broke during the next 3 weeks of travel and are now hanging in my new apartment]. Then gelato was open again, so I went with Oreo and mint, which was fantastic.
The electricity keeps going out, so…bed!
Half-day today! We went until 1 PM. I asked to go back to my favorite site, and it was John, Tom, and I again. They were working on finishing the walls and John went to get the actual tamper to work the floor. Lots of mortar and cinderblocks, handgames with Pawani, and practicing Sinhalese. Towards the end of the morning the wall needed to go high enough to require second scaffolding.
The mason was amazing at cutting the cinderblocks with his trowel at an angle to fit the angle that the one he did. It was impressive. Soon it was time to go, which was sad. It’s our last day at that site. We said goodbyes, and as I’ve grown fond of the masons and won’t see them again, I was sad. I’m going to miss almost everything about this place (mosquitos not so much). We had to get in the van, so I waved for a while from the window. We had another lunch and then went back to the hotel to get clean. We then went to the local all-girls orphanage and spent some time with them. It was really awkward at first, and we tried to play a Clue-like boardgame with them – that did not work out very well with the language barrier. We tried teaching them a few handgames, and then asked them to teach us a game they play. It was tons of fun and everyone laughed a lot.
The tune was essentially what I recall from camp as “Down by the Banks (of the Hanky Panky).” We left there and arrived at our dinner place an hour early.
And now, I’m finally caught up on my journal and sitting Adam and John’s room while they, Arika, Alice, Jonathan, and Michelle play cards. Another 8 AM tomorrow, with what may be a very emotional closing ceremony in the afternoon.
Ah, a day to sleep in! I did just that, making it to the hotel breakfast before it closed. Some people were planning to hit the marketplace and then a massage, so I was all in. I threw on sunscreen and grabbed my bandanna. Nine of us squeezed into 3 tuk-tuks. The downtown seems to center around a tall yellow clocktower in the center of a roundabout. Buildings no more than three stories high crammed together selling garments, shoes, kitchen supplies, food.
For an hour, John, Adam, Jonathan, Brigit, and I wandered the streets, occasionally stopping in stores. Mostly, we just took everything in. Neon signs, oddly translated English, two different Shoe Palaces right next to each other. We stopped in a small store/bakery and tried a different pastry – I opted for a simple sweet cookie.
Some of the food looked the same as what you can buy from the bread truck. Jonathan, more daring than the rest of us, bought a cheap lunch from an Indian place.
He bought 3 to 4 things that looked a bit like samosas – filling inside pastry – and three sauces to try with them. We crossed the street to find a place to sit and see how hot the food really was. I tried a couple – they’re actually very tasty. All for 150 rupees. I did try what looked and tasted like a big lychee, but declined to get any more. We met up again with everyone, and six of us went to get massages while Brigit, Tom, and Jonathan went back to the hotel. They probably made the wiser decision. The tuk-tuk drivers took us to Jasmin Villa, where we spent about an hour getting oiled down. So we paid and left to shower it all off.
At 3:30, most of us met up for a boat ride. We got in our bus and went to the edge of the canal that runs through Negombo. We did not expect two small rickety boats, but that’s what the boat ride entailed. I got in one with Charlie, Amanda, Brigit, and John. Our guide was very nice and pointed out all the boats and wildlife. We left the canal and went out into the lagoon. It was beautiful, and also sad. There was still wreckage from the tsunami, and trash everywhere.
Still, it was a Sunday night and lots of people were partying, either onshore or on a boat close to shore.
We saw “flying dogs” – bats – hanging in one tree at the entrance to the lagoon. The center is all mangroves, with egrets, little cormorants, and great herons everywhere.
Then our guide/captain pointed out another kind of bird – an Asian Openbill. They look like herons but with bigger, almost rounder beaks.
Someone asked about what other things lived in the water – snakes? And he mentioned a lizard, a water monitor, that lives in the mangroves. Five seconds later I spotted one. It blended in very well, but I knew I’d seen it. The boat went into reverse, very slowly, until everyone could see. It reminded me of pictures of a Komodo dragon.
It had a long tail and small claws at the end of each leg. It stayed for a minute and then slowly began inching back into the water as the other boat pulled up to see. It was cool to be able to see one!
We wrapped up the boat ride and went back to the hotel. There Amanda, Charlie, Brigit and I met up and decided to walk the beach for a bit before dinner. The sunset was beautiful!
There were lots of people enjoying the cool ocean breeze. As we got to the end of our walk, we heard music and drums. There was some sort of party going on – a few street vendors had rolled onto the sand. Oh, Sunday nights. There was a Japanese man beating a drum and about 10-15 mostly Sri Lankan girls in kimonos beating along. It was cute. We got off the beach and planned dinner around the gelato place, which now has at least for repeat tourist customers! We opted for a place called Tastee’s, which was totally delicious. I had a mojito with a little grenadine in it and a pizza margherita that was to die for. We finished it off with gelato and wondered home. We work again tomorrow!
I know, I know. That whole “scheduled posts” thing has been hilarious, eh? Well, I managed to underestimate the toll a new job would take on me. It’s been fun and exciting, and exhausting, too. When I get home, I’m just content to do absolutely nothing. I have been working on the rest of my posts, though, never fear. I’m just a few months behind when all of this actually happened…
So we’ll be returning to Sri Lanka soon, and I’m excited to share it with you. With a 3-day weekend coming up, I hope to have lots more ready for you. Thanks for your patience! I’m alive and doing well, just trying to keep up.
Me, first day of work:
Riding an elephant is a strange, almost surreal experience. And it was over all too soon. When we arrived at the Millennium Elephant Foundation, we learned about how they take care of older and sometimes abused elephants, and how their keepers, mahouts, stay with them during their time there. Then all of a sudden it was time to get on! I went with Brigit, climbing on behind her. It’s very bumpy and rolly – like a very big horse. The mahouts use verbal commands and guide the elephants. I learned that elephants recognize themselves in the mirror. The ride was very cool but too short.
Tom had bought us a basket of fruit, so we fed one of the elephants. They move their trunks very fast when food is involved!
Then we all went down to the water and had a chance to wash an elephant. I’d worn a bathing suit because I didn’t know how wet we might get, so I felt a bit awkward when I wound up being the only one who took my skirt off. Whoops! We used part of a coconut husk to scratch the elephant.
After everyone who wanted to got a chance, we toured the poo paper factory. Yes, they use elephant dung to make paper. It’s actually kind of a cool, all-natural process. They use natural dyes to make different colors.
A great idea, but not tempting enough to buy anything. Back to the bus – which was roomy and glorious compared to usual van for the worksite – and then we drove through the mountains. We arrived at the Island Spice Grove and got a quick lesson on different herbal remedies. We got a few recipes on the sheet of paper, and they had us try different lotions.
That turned into arm massages, which turned into face massages, and then we were getting neck, back, and leg massages. After the week we had, it was pretty wonderful. We had a rapid-fire day. After herbs we went to a tea factory and learned about how they make different kinds of tea and a machine that can identify and separate the plants: black (for tea) and brown (not to use).
They served us some black orange pekoe flowery (BOPF) tea, and I bought some – straight from the source! – as well as soursop tea. I’ve never seen it in the US and it smelled pretty good.
Then we were off again to a gem place: Premadasa & Co Gem Museum and Showroom. Blue sapphire is the national jewel of Sri Lanka. We watched a short video on how to extract it – all by hand, using some of the same tools we’ve been using. We were glad we’re not digging mines, though! They use rubber trees for the structure – it holds well against water. Then we browsed the showroom and changed into pants and longer tops, required for the Buddhist temple later.
We got into the heart of Kandy and parked, then hurried to some cultural dancing. The dances were really neat to see.
There was a man who ate fire and at the end he and another man walked across coals and alternated fire-eating. Then! They set the coals on fire and walked through that. They did a quick shuffle across them, several times.
Then we were off again, this time for the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth Relic. We had to go through a small security booth – one for men and one for women – but then were relatively free to walk around. Our guide was adorable but very difficult understand. I did catch a cool moment where a monk was exiting a more secure area and a man in all white approached him at the gate and genuflected in front of him. Then the monk, he, and another man in white walked away together as companions. It was really sweet. We all walked around to the front of the temple, with Buddhist flags everywhere and unique architecture out front.
We had to remove our shoes to go inside, and once in, we got shuffled in with a thousand other people. It became hard to take everything in with tons of other people doing the same thing. A drum beat the entire time and incense was in the air. There were some beautiful paintings, Buddhists with offerings of lotus flowers, the elaborate urn with the tooth of the Buddha (we could not get close). There were lots of Buddhas.
We left the temple and got our shoes back, then headed for the bus. Everyone was drained from the day and many began nodding off before we could find dinner. Easily an hour later we did, and minus the abundance of geckos it was unremarkable. Then we were on our way again, sleeping. We were woken by a strange and at times frightening Hindu festival to a war god? We drove right through the parade at about 11:30. Drums and throngs of people. At one point people were banging on the side of the bus, which made me nervous. There were carried shrines and bedecked elephants. And then there were the men with hooks in their skin. Hanging by their backs, and pulling on a rope to swing back and forth. I guess there’s masochism in every religion, but it was weird to see. But we got through it safe and sound and collapsed into bed. What a day!
I now have a pink mosquito net above my bed. Today we were out the door by 8 AM. We switched jobs when we got to the worksite, and Thomas, Alice, John and I spent most of the morning moving bricks. We’d arrange them so the masons could access them easily, but they never had us lay any. Occasionally we would mix mortar, and deliver that. Alice and I carried one of the cement bags together – 50 kilos – though had to stop twice. Whew. Spent a lot of time sitting and waiting, watching the masons lay bricks.
The homeowner made us tea and cake, which was very sweet of her. Lunch was at noon at the same house as yesterday, and was extra long today so we could spend more time sitting in the shade. The food was similar to yesterday’s but with some plantains and fish instead of chicken. Dessert was pineapple slices –mm!
We discussed our weekend plans, which involve elephants, tea, and beaches, and sound awesome. In the afternoon I volunteered to help with concrete. We worked a little more than we did in the morning, and were able to finish one floor. We had another break for coconut water, which Brigit thankfully offered to share with me. The water was a little cooler than yesterday, which helped it go down some, but it was still tough going. The water is never ending. When we were done, we went back to our usual “street” and hung out with the Habitat people there. The same little girl who has good English was there, and she and her sister came running when they saw us, particularly Alice.
We played games together, which was hilarious. I got my camera out and she loved that, taking me around the yard to get pictures. Then she took some of me and ran around and grabbed some more of her family.
More Habitat people came over, and she ran to get chairs for everyone. I taught her the hand-slap game, and she laughed so hard when one of us won. Brigit taught her a new hand game, like pattycake. It was a lovely way to spend the last 20 minutes of our day.
Same routine as yesterday: sink laundry, shower, rest, journal. Dinner will be at the hotel, Paradise Holiday Inn, in a little over an hour. Can’t wait!
My body is definitely feeling sore now!!
This morning we had more sites and they were more spread out. It took about three seconds to start sweating today. Michelle, Thomas, and I went to one site away from everyone else and dug out foundation walls for a room rebuild. All three sides had to be about 1 foot wide and 1 foot deep.
That was rough going, and they put on loud 40s American music – a sweet gesture but weird to work to. Halfway through the morning, they brought out dahl, bread, and sweet coconut cakes? Like what we had at the orientation ceremony. We got in the van for our usual lunch spot. The food was generally the same, but a step up. They had spicy pork but also very mild noodles which I liked. The flies are a bit killer but I’m getting used to swatting them away. Too soon, our break was over. The afternoon was very productive, though included a coconut break. I tried really hard, but gave the last several gulps to Michelle to finish. Maybe by the end of two weeks I’ll be used to it. We carried rocks and mortar to the helpers. During one break I talked with the little girl, Pawani, who has been in school for six years. I also introduced her to the pattycake hand game, which amused her enough to later give me a small flower. I tucked it into my hair but as I’m not used to it, kept being startled by it like it was a bug. The wall kept building up and up until the far one was basically complete, about 1 1/2 to 2 feet above ground.
We were running low on mortar, so I finally asked the head mason about it. With nearly zero English, we managed to communicate the number of pans of sand and cement mix, and they trusted us enough to basically leave us alone. It felt like a big step. We stopped for a tea break, which was delicious. They also bought bread from the bread truck that passed – jelly-filled pieces covered in sugar. Mmm.
Oh! In the morning I also tried talking with the homeowner’s mother. She has (had?) four sons. It’s possible three have died, or her husband. It was hard to get what her gestures meant. I think I told her I have two older brothers. Pretty sure I mangled sister-in-law, she may think I have two illegitimate daughters.
When we got back, I decided to feel like a human again and used – gasp – hair conditioner and my regular deodorant. Whole new woman. Arika arranged a dinner out and before we left I went across the street and bought cool flowy green pants to wear this weekend, and a dress for my niece. Dinner was a great adventure. We all decided on Indian, so she found a place, then wisely checked with the front desk to make sure it was open. Nope. So he asked a tuk-tuk driver. Boy did he pull through. Seven of us got tuk-tuk rides to a local Indian place – a favorite of tuk-tuk drivers. Adam and I shared one, and it was a lot of fun. We had to take three altogether. The drivers seemed to humor us and we passed John and Arika, and they passed us, etc.
Fascinating little ride. We arrived at Sameeha Family Restaurant. They put us in a back room that seemed to be air-conditioned, with some other families. We flipped through the menu and Michelle asked about a beer menu. It was only then that Arika remembered it was a Muslim restaurant. Oops! The food, though, was the best we’ve had yet. John got them to bring what reminded me most of Indian samosas, which were delicious. I ordered butter naan and roast chicken kottu. It’s hard to describe – tandoori chicken, vegetables, eggs, and I think flat noodles? They said it was distinctly Sri Lankan – yay! I tried the chicken tikka masala – that will be my next order! We have to go back. After a mix-up with the check (“chai? No, check. Bill!”) I was put in mind of chai, and ordered one. WOW. I am so glad I did. It was hands-down the best chai I’ve ever had. Perfect balance of creamy and sweet, with good tea. After we’d stuffed ourselves and paid, we got the tuk-tuks to stop at a beer mart on the way back. I grabbed a cider and then we all played – ah, President – in Michelle, Arika, and Alice’s room. I laughed so hard I cried. We had some hilarious president rules. Jonathan’s: if we passed we had to do an Arnold Schwarzenegger impression. Arika won twice. The first rule she used was to make fart noises if we passed. Then she swapped that one for making animal noises if you got skipped. Hilarious night.
Today was a great day. Michelle and I went to the same site again to work on the walls and this time Tom joined us. I don’t like not being able to work but it really drives Tom nuts. He tried to help constantly and sometimes got in the way of the masons. I’ve kind of come to terms with the hurry up and wait thing, and while it’s frustrating, I try to learn by watching. The stone wall got finished on all three sides, and we helped with rock carrying, mortar mixing and delivery. Upul came by to help and give us a history lesson of Sri Lanka.
In 1505 it was controlled by the Portuguese, then Dutch, then British. The last king (181 total) was in 1815. In 1948 Sri Lanka gained independence, and in 1974 the new current government was formed. He also helped me practice Sinhala, and I mangled all the questions I asked the masons. Both are married, one has two sons and a daughter, the other one daughter. One has I think two younger sisters and one older brother…? It was a lot of fun. Of course, I retain the family words but not more useful ones like mortar and bricks and rocks. Sand is velli, aye-yah is older brother, aka is older sister, mali is younger sister and nandiji is younger brother. Then at lunch I learned ama is mother and tata is father. I forget wife – something like barindij? and husband, though husband is long. They taught me numbers one through five: uka, daka, tuna, ____, bahat. I held onto five because I can then ask for “high bahat,” and because their son is five. I tried “my name is” but forgot. Finally some is starting to stick, though! Also at lunch, their son saw me making fish faces, and from then on, every time he passed me, he made a fish face, too.
In the afternoon we went back for an hour or so and rapidly finished the foundation walls – by then the bricks had nearly dried and we filled the middle with concrete and rebar.
The van got us early and we all went to visit a “Blitz Build” community – I think 168 people built 24 homes in one week. Wow.
After we checked out some of the homes, we went to the community center and got a group picture, then coffee and cookies. There was a shy little girl that clung to her mother. I offered her a cookie and she still clung to her mom, opening her hand (but not looking at me) to let me place the cookie in it.
Later, farther from everyone else, she seemed to open up and was playing with her brothers. As we left she smiled and bravely shook my hand.
Neither Brigit nor I ate much at lunch so we headed to dinner early – another “free” night. We asked the guy at the hotel, who has a thing for her, where to go to see the ocean, and wound up walking right past it. Oops. But we got to Sevana for a late sunset and wonderful ocean breeze, not to mention delicious food. We were both very content, then walked down to get gelato – right before he closed! Mm. Gelato. Then I FaceTimed with Dad, which was really nice.
Tomorrow is elephants, gems, tea, Kandy-!!
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