|Artwork: Watercolour, Adam's Peak, R. Mackay|
Those winter days, snow was something that happened far away somewhere else. Where I was, we had sand and sea, we had palm trees with their leaves brushing one another in the trade winds, sounding like a thousand silk taffeta skirts swishing across the ballroom of the sky; jungle thunder blowing bellows of animal occupation in juxtaposing harmonies, and choruses of monkey chatter and birds, greeting the dawning days with song. Those beautiful red bellied blue blacked kingfishers resting by easy flowing rivers and banks of ancient tanks, bee eaters, nestled among the noise of humanity; the porridge of cars and bicycles ploughing their way over damp soft sandy roads and nubbly tarmac.
We had decided to spend Christmas in Nuwara Eliya, and thought to make an adventure of it by climbing Adam’s Peak on Christmas Eve, to be at the summit in time to watch the sunrise on Christmas Morning. I can’t recall all that much about Christmas Eve, other than my anticipation of looking forward to the climb and being preoccupied with it. I do believe much of the day was spent relaxing, reading about, and preparing for, the climb. That evening, we stuffed ourselves with a good curry, and with our packs stuffed with sweets, chocolate, nuts and water, by ten pm we were ready to leave. It was all rather spooky driving about the small Sri Lanka Hill Country roads in the dark; the odd headlights of distant cars dancing through the landscape like fireflies, illuminating their paths here and there. And in the night, ever slowly drawing nearer, one could see the serpentine ladder of lights climbing up like the tail of a comet rising to the moon, or of fairy lights dangling from the stars, the lights of the stairway to the summit of Sri Pada, hanging in suspended animation as though it was an entrance into another dimension.
My heart leapt when I first saw this. The surrounding night and landscape were so dark that it all melted into one black sheet and one couldn’t really make the outline of the mountain against the sky at all.
Samanalakanda. The mountain where butterflies go to die. Like the great migrations of butterflies one imagines the entire mountain from the river beds at the foot to its peak in the clouds, oscillating from millions of multicoloured wings. I was that butterfly, although very much alive, climbing, climbing, under the rows of lights, step by step, wings of feet working. At the foot, the steps are set wide apart, such as the stairs one sees in medieval castles that allow horses to ascend easily with their riders. But as the incline became steeper, the steps became narrower. I was part of that ladder of lights now, and it didn’t seem that long before I felt that we were already quite high. But time is a strange passing in the inky blackness of forest and night, and I couldn’t be sure how high we had climbed and in what amount of time and, it didn’t really matter; I was far too excited to be wondering about time.
We must have been at least half way up when I felt it. All was so pitch black on either side of me; the landscape, save for the lighted path, had disappeared into pots of inky blackness and looking right or left, I could see nothing but space, although I could hear frogs and crickets singing, it was as though I was lifted up. I could see dots of lights twinkling a all round the landscape and, being a mountainous region I couldn’t distinguish the lights from the stars in the sky, and those of houses, as they blended into one entity. I sensed a slow back and fore rocking motion. I felt dizzy. My knees went weak and wobbly. My body froze. The ground below me disappeared and here I was, on this narrow path and floating in a void. And I could not move. I panicked inside myself and I wondered if I could make it to the top or if I ought to turn back now. Everything felt suspended. The sky felt suspended. The earth, the lights, the path, felt suspended in vertigo for a brief moment. I could not see the ground either left or right of the path and only stars below and stars across and stars above me, on my narrow path in outer space. As quickly as the panic inside me left, it was replaced with an exhilarating sense of wonder, and the lines of Ungaretti came to mind:
It cannot be translated into English without losing something of the magic of the meaning. Some things just need to remain as they are.
“Is everything ok?” my companion asked.
“yes.” I mouth it, semi whisper it, semi say it, feeling my eyes huge with wonder. “Just look around you. “ I say. “It’s gorgeous. You can hardly make out the tops of the other mountains because they are below us now, and all those lights of houses, they’re all mixing with the stars. Don’t you feel as though you’re floating?” And I turned to continue our ascent. No wonder, I thought, no wonder it was called The Stairway to heaven.
To give the weary skywalker some respite, the way up (or down) is dotted at intervals with kiosks selling tea and other sundries; glucose, sweets and other snacks. We stopped at one of these to take a rest, and buy some tea. There were shelves lined with glasses which the vendor dips into boiling water to sterilise them, and , a strong black tea is poured in along with some sweetened condensed milk and syrup. It sounds revolting, for sure, especially to the connoisseur and perhaps I am doing myself a disservice saying that I loved the flavour. But it was made really well, with very good and really strong tea, and together with the syrup and sweet milk, it morphs into an almost different beverage entirely. Done right, it is actually surprisingly lovely. Satiny, silky in the mouth, velvety even, and rich, and for a climb such as this, right comforting. With it we ate some chocolate, and as for me, the rapture of that moment of vertigo still with me, it was pure manna from heaven.
“So here it is,“ I say, “ you get some jaggery, and melt it with butter until you get a nice toffee. Add nuts, like pecans. Any nuts will do but pecans are best. Pour this over a slab of dark chocolate, let it set. Make a pot full of this here sweet tea, and when the chocolate’s ready, indulge. “ It rather had the flavour of a carnival sweet.
Re-energised, we continued. I loved the air. I loved the air becoming so crispy and cool up here, so fresh and pure. We were, after all, climbing to 7’360 feet or so, of mountain. I loved the elevated feeling of suspension, the gift of stars. And, about half an hour before sunrise, we made it to the top. There was a small kiosk there, outfitted with a postal service, selling post cards of the summit, there was the the shrine of the great footprint, and people milling about waiting for daylight, that special time when the shadow of the peak is cast against the mist by the rising sun. It was Christmas morning; and what better way to send greetings to my family in Canada than by means of a post card written on Christmas Day, on the top of Adam’s peak. It was Christmas morning. It was cold up there and having posted my cards at the kiosk, we walked together to watch for the shadow of the mountain against the rising morning mist and cloud, to appear like a ghost as the sun rose. And in the milky cold crisp morning of that Christmas Day, we hugged each other. Merry Christmas! We hugged and greeted each other, and, all was as it should be, even without the snow.
A Very Happy Christmas , and all the best for 2012 and the year of the Dragon, from a golden sunset Edinburgh, Helena Fergus Strathmore.