An adventurous trek with a tracker and a guide through uninhabited jungle in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka this past winter.
WAITING for ELEPHANTS
Trekking through the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” The Four Quartets
Exotic travel begins as an extravagant fantasy of the mind, full of talking parrots in free flight and weeping willows on a lonely shore, sturdy coconut palms dripping wet in monsoon rains and remarkable valleys, carpeted in tea plantations and wrapped in rainbows. The fantasy eventually becomes a dream that comes true when we turn a corner and find ourselves in the savage terrain of a wilderness as in this most recent journey. We imagine a place we have never been before and never thought we would travel to, but have always wanted to visit.
Pilgrim journeys to secret sanctuaries begin in the sacred sentiments of the heart, to imagine worlds within the swirling mist and low clouds of the mountain trail, to travel to places whose goal is not the particular destination of Shanghai, Katmandu or Colombo, but the journey itself, to stir our desire and awaken the qualities and attributes of the ultimate pilgrimage site that resides within us like a beacon of light and moves us to action like the beating of a second heart. The outer journey may take us to places we never thought to go, but the inner journey will take us to imagined worlds we cannot afford to ignore. According to Marcel Proust, “the real journey of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
For my winter holiday between semesters at the university in Doha where I work, I decided to venture deep into the jungles of the central highlands of Sri Lanka, an island I have often wanted to visit, but never did, partly because a civil war has afflicted the country for the last thirty years until 2009 when resolution was finally found to the conflict, much to the delight of outsiders like myself have wanted to visit the island for years. Often described as “the teardrop of India”, from the heavens it no doubt does look like a teardrop emerging from the eye of India as a moving tribute evocative of the country’s own unique culture and ambiance. In walking through the jungle and forest areas of central Sri Lanka, one is often walking not only through but above the clouds that float through the misty valleys like ethereal ghosts haunting terrestrial regions on earth with their eerie premonitions of the unknown, particularly in wild jungles areas where encounters with wild animals are not just the stuff of dreams, but a hard reality of these still wild, uninhabited climes.
Legends about the island stir the imagination into a broth of primitive truths. One legend worth highlighting suggests that the island of Sri Lanka was the entry point of Adam and Eve after they had exited the invisible door of no return from Eden and entered the terrestrial paradise on earth, setting his foot onto the peak of Butterfly Mountain, a conical mountain in Central Sri Lanka whose peak, now called Adam’s Peak (sri pada or sacred footprint), has preserved an impression seemingly of a footprint that both the Muslims and Christians attribute to Adam as he descended from the paradisal garden. For Buddhists, the vague impression of a footprint repre-sents the left foot of the Buddha, while the Tamil Hindus consider it the footprint of Lord Shiva. The mountain itself is a standalone from the dis-tance, rising up to provide magnificent views of the surrounding highlands; it soars heavenward out of the lush green tea plantations that sprout in terraced splendor along the rolling hills as a solitary symbol that is revered locally as an auspicious sanctuary amid the hills of the surrounding area.
The taxi made its way to the Grand Oriental Hotel for the first night of my stay through the chaotic streets of Colombo, full of blaring horns, whining motorcycles, and the grinding brakes of the three-wheeled took-tooks commandeered by crazed drivers with no respect for the rules of the road. The historic hotel dates back to the height of the British Raj era of the 19th century when it opened the doors of the palatial 4-storey edifice on 27 October 1837. Facing the harbor, it proudly stands in remembrance of a bygone era of horse-drawn carriages and flickering gas lamps when gentlemen and ladies alighted from their vehicles, the men wearing white linen suits and the women carrying hand-painted parasols to shield themselves from the relentless glare of the tropical sun, if not the drenching downpours of the monsoon rains that seasonally visit the area. I managed to squeeze my aging bones from the cramped car that had taken me from the airport to the hotel’s entrance where a porter in an emerald green coat with gold tassels, white cuffs and a brilliant smile beckoned me to enter the historic premises for an evening of rest and refreshment.
Regrettably, I was not given—or able to afford—the room in which Anton Chekov had stayed during his travels through Sri Lanka. He wrote about the Ceylon of that time as, “The place where Paradise is located. Here, in Paradise, I covered more than 100 miles on railway and was sated up to the neck with palm-forests and bronzed-skinned women.” According to legend, he actually started to write the short story “Gusev” during his extended stay in Colombo. The gracious management did allow me to take a peek into the room the great literary figure once occupied, view the curtained bed that he had slept in and rest my hands on the desk where he wrote his story long-hand, taking a few notes on the writing table as well in memory of the great Russian short story writer and playwright. No doubt the creaking of the wood floor and the whistling of the shutters framing the view of the harbor joined the silent echoes of the restless footsteps of the writer as he composed his lofty tale for future generations. In addition to the famed Checkov, we should not neglect to mention the other notaries who have stayed in the historic hotel over the years. Indira Gandhi, Chow En Lai and even Archbishop Makarios graced the establishment with their presence, so I was in good company indeed during my brief stay there.
My room in the back overlooking the cranes of the docks silhouetted against the setting sun with their skeletal frames the very picture of modern engineering and efficiency, reflected the limits of my pocketbook but did not dull the spirit of my adventure to come and I was happy to become a part of the history of the place in my own right. The bed was covered with mosquito netting, the ceiling was supported by thick wooden beams that would be the envy of any modern-day interior decorator, and the door hinges creaked and moaned of ancient travelers who had occupied the room down through the decades across several centuries. I later ate my dinner in the dining room on the top floor with a magnificent view of the harbor, the maitre d greeting me in a black tuxedo and tie with a formal bow and leading me to a choice table by the window bedecked with silver and linens and illuminated with a single candle. Unlike many of the foreigners who find themselves in this exotic places, I chose to dine on Sri Lankan food, asking the waiter to bring me rice and curry, knowing full well that I would be brought huge portions of various local dishes such as dhal (lentils), chicken, and curried vegetables flavored with the dutiful red-hot chilies that are de rigueur to the palate in these climes. As an added and unexpected benefit, I was served an onion soup that would have shamed the beret off a Frenchman’s head.
The next morning, having cleared the room of my presence and stuffed my meager belongings into a small carry-on bag on wheels, I made my way downstairs in the first electric elevator in Sri Lanka built as a modernization process over a hundred years ago in the late 19th century. The elegant, old-fashioned lobby was empty of people, but flooded in early morning sunlight and tropical plants. Only one person stood in the distance looking over the pastries in the window of the coffee shop and he looked up when I exited the elevator. This was Lal, short for Sandalal, my week-long driver for the trip, who would work behind the scenes bringing my luggage from place to place and picking me and my guides up as appropriate along the trekking route. Dressed in a light cotton shirt and white linen slacks and with his chocolate brown skin smooth against the fresh linen cloth, his honest smile was welcoming indeed after the long trip from the UAE and the obsequiousness of the maitre d the night before.
It turned out that Lal had lived and work as a driver for a large and highly respected milk company in Saudi Arabia. On the four-hour drive into the interior highlands of the country where we would have lunch, meet my English-speaking guide, and commence the rigorous jungle trek, I began to hear the familiar stories of his terrible experiences in Saudi Arabia, stories that have a familiar ring because many others, including myself, had had similar experiences; we could only commiserate with each other about the level of inhumanity we had been driven to as workers in those places.
“It’s not just because you are a low-life from Sri Lanka,” I shouted from the rear of the car with studied melodrama, accentuating my tone with righteous indignation as we drove along the two lane road congested with cycles, took-tooks, aggressive SUVs, aging busses and bedraggled trucks, one of which I noted was transporting two elephants standing in the back of the truck like debutants waiting for their dance cards to be filled. “Everybody suffers in those places, even Americans like me,” I shouted with extra emphasis, where people have become intoxicated with the power and control that money brings to those weak-minded individuals who have not earned what money they have. Lal took great pleasure in recounting a story of a Saudi who came to Sri Lanka that Lal was driving around. At a five-star hotel, the reception wanted to see the face of his wife briefly to verify her identity, but the Saudi flatly refused. “This is my country,” Lal took pleasure in telling the witless Saudi, “not your country. If you don’t like it, or don’t want to abide by the rules, then off you go with yourself.” We arrived in the roadside and picturesque hamlet of Belihuloya in central Sri Lanka in time for an extended buffet lunch before embarking on our first trek through the jungle.
From the open-air setting of the rest house terrace, I could see extended view of semi-evergreen forests, tea plantations spread in abundance across the rolling hills, and green, rectangular paddy fields in the valleys. During lunch, Lal introduced me to my English-speaking trekking guide who would stay with me for the duration of the tour. Raj was a middle-aged Sri Lankan professional guide with considerable knowledge of the flora and fauna of the area, the diverse variety of animal and insect life, and had extensive experience doing trekking tours and National Game Park safaris in the country. His looks belied his age, giving the appearance of being much young and fitter than his true age might suggest. I could see that he was the outdoors type, his face had a rugged, natural appearance, looking strong and healthy, well suited for the coming adventure, his face was open and frank, not wearing the falseness and superficiality that we can come to expect from people nowadays in today’s world. I felt confident that he would prove to be a good companion during the difficult trek that lay ahead and put my full trust in him from the start. With a smile, he gave me some guidance about what to expect during the coming afternoon and where we would stay that evening after the trek.
Armed with a professional walking stick that my guide provided me with, we left the open airiness, safety and quiet seclusion of the restaurant’s patio, with its balmy breezes, cooling shade, glorious panoramas of hillside tea trees and paddy fields, and walked in the valleys between the hills that would lead the tracker, the guide and myself to a permanent camp in the interior that would be our base in the coming days. I noted that the tracker who was knowledgeable for this particular countryside wore shorts and rubber thongs which later proved to be fortuitous when it came to crossing the boulder-strewn stream that we had to cross about two hours into the trek. We would not yet be entering the deepest and wildest part of the jungle, so the tracker could afford to be casual in his attire for this particular afternoon trek.
After the narrow streets of Colombo, the chaotic traffic, the dingy shops, the noisy took-tooks taking liberties in their dexterity as if they owned the streets and had a natural right to be first, walking through the shoulder-length grasses, the bushes and tangled shrubs that smothered the forward movement of the hillside path wasn’t that much of a challenge. I took care to keep close to the tracker and my guide Raj took up the rear to ward of any challenge from the rear. This was the routine we would follow through the entire jungle trek of the coming days. While in the lowlands and skirting the edge of the water soaked paddy fields, the relentless tropical sun, whose clarity of light was astounding, coming as I was from the Arabian desert areas where the skies close to the horizon are full of dust and grime and never clear. The light falling onto the bushes, grasses and shrubs was crystal clear, accentuating a vibrancy of color that was wonderful to behold. The blue of tropical blue is not your routine blue but reflects the purity of sky-blue; the green of rice shoots in a paddy field look like emerald green as I bend down to take a closer look; it is verdant, luminescent green painted as though with original colors of the Divine Palette.
The approach to the river stream in mid-afternoon took me by surprise. The tracker in front of me put up his hand for a halt; beyond I saw the bubbling river making its meandering way through a series of rocks and boulders scattered at random throughout the riverbed. “We cross here,” he said in no uncertain terms. I looked at Raj and smiled, wondering where the bridge was, but then thinking I can do this. I took off my trainers and socks and rolled up my trousers without a comment of protest. After having stood for relentless hours in a classroom trying to teach the unteachable what they didn’t want to learn, this is what I have come for, I thought to myself, walking through the forest stream barefoot and humble in God’s nature park, alone and on foot with two friendly guides to show me the way.
It has always been a point of interest for me how a person can come so close so quickly to perfect strangers when life throws them together for a brief but intense period of time. This was the case on that sunny afternoon by the side of the river in the middle of nowhere. The tracker took my shoes in one hand and my hand in his other hand, like blood brothers, and escorted me gingerly into the cooling waters of the running jungle stream. My heart beat second life into these aging bones. I can do this, I thought, and will not complain. The crossing called for tricky footing. The guide, with his rubber thongs, wrapped his toes and feet around the impediments on the floor of the stream. However, unaccustomed as I was to walking barefoot, much less negotiating my way across some danger footing in a crystal-clear mountain stream, I began to realize that this was going to be more difficult than I had imagined. The rocks were slick with moss and treacherously slippery, as I thought to myself old people fall hard, rigid and full of fear, unlike children and toddlers who simply melt to the floor in abandonment when they trip and fall. “Step here, step there,” the guide coaxed me anxiously and at one point, as I started to slip dangerously to my knees, he was there to set me aright as I stumbled into deeper waters with less visibility into its murky depths. These poor naked feet are not up to the task I began to think when suddenly I heaved and gave way, losing my footing and sinking desperately and fully dressed into the bubbling waters. “Lift me up quickly,” I shouted, but there was no need as the tracker and guide rushed to my aid and lifted me out of the water, the cloth bag I carried over my shoulder with some supplies sopping wet from the accident. Once safely on shore beyond the moss-covered rocks and boulders of the river bed, I sat down and examined the damage to my meager belongings, wallet, money, passport, notebook all soaking wet from the total submersion into the waters of the jungle stream.
Another two hours took us through the late afternoon shadows toward the declining sun as it edged closer to the horizon. It would soon be dark. The trekking outfit I was wearing never fully dried from my sudden unexpected dunk into the river; I continued to be drenched in sweat wondering if the end was near, but keeping silent to meet the uncomplaining silence of my two companions, who spoke when they had something of value to say but otherwise kept silent for long swaths of time as we moved forward at a relentless pace. By now, the jungle was announcing itself in unexpected ways. The path we were following was becoming less visible, less evident, less manageable, this was becoming ankle-twisting country, the bushes and trees were encroaching from all sides, the gnarled roots of the colossal rain trees looked like the fingers of an old man clinging to the blanket of life.
“Our camp isn’t far from here,” Raj announced suddenly with all the charm of a musical flute, filling the exhausted void of my mind, now emptied of all rational thought except struggle and determination to reach our destination without undue complaint, with thoughts of coffee, rest, a change of clothes, with a twilight dinner under the awning of jungle trees amid the echoes of animal nightlife that populate the absolute darkness of jungle areas with their own alien voices.
Shortly thereafter, we slipped through an opening in the jungle wall and down a flight of stepping stone stairs. We were greeted in the courtyard of the camp enclosure by a number of friendly dogs barking their delight at our arrival. One of the dogs, completely black and still a puppy at about 8 months old, took a quirky liking to me, whining like a baby and begging to be touched and petted. When we sat down a little later to have coffee and chat about the afternoon adventure, the dog sat down dutifully beside me and eventually settled in to sleep across my feet. I was the only guest in the camp. A little later, I was escorted down the hill and under the trees to my tent for a period of rest. Dinner would be served after sunset. The dog followed and stayed with me as the threat of impending twilight began to make itself felt. As I sat there marveling at my surroundings and listening to the eerie silence that accompanied the descending light of day, I suddenly heard a great crashing and swaying of tree branches high overhead in the upper layers of the jungle. The mystery of this frantic sound was soon resolved with the cries and wild shrieks of a group of grey monkeys who parted the treetop leaves to glare down at me, first accusingly and then mockingly from the treetops. Their faces were weary and pinched from suffering and fear in their own right, suggesting that their life wasn’t just leaping through trees and frolicking through the jungle. They quickly moved away at the loud barking of my new found friend, the dog, who was snarling and barking to high heaven at this rude intrusion. A man or dog alone can get short shrift from a family of monkeys and can be a danger, but with man and dog together, the monkeys pose no more threat than a thief out to steal your wallet which they love to do when given the chance. Shortly thereafter, absolute night descended across the jungle with eerie efficiency and I was left with my own premonitions in the total darkness, the yellow eyes of the dog looking up at me in earnest devotion and attentiveness. Who could not feel compassion and gratefulness for this faithful puppy who had adopted me as a master worthy of his devotion?
The following morning, after a breakfast of homemade toasted bread and three country eggs cooked to my specification, followed by a plate of fruits, including juicy pineapple, sweet mango and luscious papaya all freshly cut into bite-sized cubes, we three, the tracker, the guide and myself, prepared to make the real jungle trek in earnest. The guide sheepishly told me that I would have to carry my own sleeping bag which when efficiently rolled up hung across my back without much weight to speak of, although after eight hours of trekking through dense uninhabited jungle, I was well aware that I had brought my own bedding with me under my own steam, shifting the increasing weight and bulky size from shoulder to shoulder so as not to cause undue aggravation to one side of the body. An advance team of four teenage boys preceded us through the jungle in order to set up a make-shift camp with my own little tent and toilet facilities deep into the heart of the jungle where we would stay that night. The boys and guides would sleep under the stars.
Right, I said to myself, and took a deep breath. This is what I had come for and it was time to “make tracks”. The black dog looked sadly into my eyes and squirmed in protest at my departure, but I told him that I would be back in a couple of days, so he sat faithfully at the entrance to the campsite until we disappeared from view beyond the merciless glare of the sunlit road into the permanent twilight of thick impenetrable brush of the jungle wall that lined the side of the road.
Upon entering the wild terrain of a wilderness, the first thing one looses is one’s name. All sense of personal identity, status, and trappings of person, character and personality disappear into the dense, hot, humid, cruel, wild jungle, where nothing and no one cares who you are and that echoes with the strange, indeed thrilling, cries of insects and animals we have never encountered—and never thought to encounter—in person.
My name is John no more; I have arrived at a moment in time when a name becomes just a word, the person behind the name gone with the culture and civilization that I have now left behind. The only thing left is one’s basic human nature to be, to do, to follow through on what needs to be done as one meets the neutrality of the jungle with one’s own inner neutrality, unadorned by the trappings of whims, desires, fears and regrets that regularly inhabit our minds as permanent residents. They would have no practical use here except perhaps to lay claim to an unreality that had no place when set up against the mighty, the awesome, the awful reality of the jungle. I am literally on foot seemingly in a land of dreams about to come true . There is something overwhelming about a jungle that makes the majestic rivers, mountains and forests that abound within nature seem like tinker toys of nature when set up against the unrelenting and merciless wildness of a tropical jungle.
Upon entering such alien terrain, one has the indescribable feeling of having passed through some primitive ancient door revealed momentarily to certain receptive individuals whose hearts are open to the mysteries of the unseen that exist unaccountably within the heart of nature. All the fear and uncertainty, desires and regrets shed their enveloping skin as we step over the threshold of the visible into the visible, the known into the unknown. With my walking stick fortuitously provided me by my thoughtful guide Raj, I began to make my way uphill, through dense brush, shrubs and clinging undergrowth, then downhill on rocks, tree roots and boulders that actually made descending more difficult, dangerous and treacherous than climbing uphill that put demands on the body and the lungs beyond the call of duty, creating a feeling of breathlessness. I soon realized less than an hour into the trek that I was drenched in sweat, as wet and uncomfortable as I was the previous day having slipped and unceremoniously fallen into the highland stream.
We soon linked up with a meandering jungle stream that skirted the hilly terrain providing context and direction as we made our way through the jungle. Jungle animals rely on rivers, streams, and waterholes for survival and jungle trails such as they are can be found in and around such waterways for both man and animals. Going down the trail hugging the boulder-strewn river bed was like travelling back into the earliest beginnings of the world when vegetation proliferated in the wild affluence of primordial nature akin to the Biblical and Qur’anic Paradise. Plants, bushes, and thorny undergrowth rioted across the hills of the area and the immense trees stood in stately silence as kings of the kingdom waiting to be paid tribute. The jungle stream flowed steadily through the rocks and boulders of the riverbed, creating a free-flowing valley through the dense terrain of the jungle, the massive rounded boulders looking like sleeping animals waiting to be awakened by the magic wand of Mother Nature. “The tranquil waterway leading to the innermost ends of the earth flows somber under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” A great silence made it presence curiously felt was sometimes interrupted by the occasional cries and calls of the various jungle animals, birds and frogs etc that remain hidden but make their appearance through sound.
We made our way through the dense undergrowth for a number of hours, taking periodic rests for water and to rest. The deeper we went into the jungle, the more wary the two guides became, particularly the tracker, for we had entered uninhabited terrain at that point. I noted overturned earth on the side of the muted track a number of times and finally asked what caused the earth to be disturbed like that since it obviously indicated the passing of some animal or other. “Wild boar,” Raj replied noncommittally and without further comment. “They can be dangerous, no?” I quipped. “Yes,” Raj said with a grim smile. “We don’t want to come across wild boar. They can be nasty and have been known to attack for no good reason.” Then, he added as an afterthought, “if we see any rooting pigs, throw me the walking stick and I’ll fight them off.” Indeed, I’ll be sure to do that, I thought to myself. Raj told me that wandering elephants were now a concern and we would have to be on the lookout lest we stumble upon one of them accidentally and unannounced. The male elephants roam these jungle areas on their own, while the females remain in the herd, particularly when they are taking care of their young. We did come across large elephant footprints shortly thereafter, but the elephant dung by the side was dried and cracked.
At one point, we crossed one by one the jungle stream on a make-shift wooden walk bridge that swayed precariously with the vibration of our footsteps, calling to mind Thornton Wilder’s classic novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, that collapsed over a mountain gorge as a number of characters in the novel crossed the precariously built bridge. Nearby, under a colossal tree that dominated the area with its strength and ancient presence, we rested and had lunch of cheese sandwiches and crackers nicely packed in tiffins and tucked into the backpack of my two guides. “You are doing very well for your age,” Raj told me. Gayan, our tracker, also had commented apparently on my durability and lack of complaint. “We are actually a little ahead of schedule and should be at the campsite in two to three hours,” I was told, perhaps as a drop of motivation for the trek ahead. Fortified with water and the sandwiches, we continued the arduous journey through the jungle seeking our destination, the make-shift camp with my little sleeping tent later that afternoon. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of the overshadowed distances ahead. The air was warm, thick, heavy and uniquely tropical with no relief in sight until one came to a halt at some suitable resting place where we wouldn’t be stung by a bee, bitten by a snake, or attacked by red ants. Little sunshine penetrated into the layered jungle forest and what light did shine through came down as shafts of light at odd angles, hitting the jungle floor as beads of light.
We arrived at camp sooner than expected, for we had made tracks and suffered few delays during the course of the day. I had managed to hold my own and without further ado, I heard the words that were echoing in my mind toward the remains of the day, “That’s the camp down beyond that rocky cliff.” Indeed, I saw the little tent and make-shift toilet that had been made ready for my convenience that night. After stripping of our sweaty clothing to dry, we walked into the shallows of the river to bath and relax in the cooling crystal clear waters. This has got to be paradise on earth, I thought, wrapped in Mother Nature’s benevolence, the pristine waters of the river wrapping me up like a birthday gift, clouds overhead pretending not to care, the sun off its peak of the day and edging toward the horizon casting lengthening shadows across the waters, across the jungle, across our world.
An advance team of Sri Lankan youth who worked for the eco-tourism company had come ahead and set up the tent and brought other supplies we would need for the night, including flashlights, food, cooking utensils and kerosene lamps to ward off the animals who dislike the smell of kerosene. They had already made themselves at home here in the wilds of the jungle, making me feel less apprehensive than I might otherwise have felt, since we were now deep into Conrad’s heart of darkness. The boys had tucked themselves under a ledge with overhanging rocks, the area itself approximating the beginnings of a natural cave. They would sleep outdoors there that night on simple cloth mats. The happy chatter and playful antics of the boys, with their flashlights sending out arcs of light into the darkness of the night, added an element of normalcy to the environment in the same way that that chatter and funny antics of children make home of a house.
There is a moment just after dusk when the light of the setting sun shines upward into the heavens rather down upon the earth; then the sil-houette of the jungle lies black against the dying light of the sky in all its primitive blackness. The world of perpetual twilight soon became the world of perpetual night emanating from the great wall of darkness that surrounded us once the light of day had disappeared, recalling the everlasting gloom that must exist on the moon, half of which never sees the sun and is cast into an everlasting night if there ever was one. Here on earth, however, we have the benevolence of the Creator who gives us alternating day and night as part of the celestial rhythms that make up time and space. Once night has fallen, a sweetness flowed into my exhausted body with the slowness of creeping molasses. Peace and tranquility that matches in strength the fearful and ominous darkness displaces the feelings of effort and exhaustion that have dominated my mind for most of the day. A great letting go and surrender has taken over not only my limbs but my mind and heart, allowing me to savor the moment of half moon, glittering stars and whispering jungle that lay around me at the disposition of my imagination.
Raj suggested that I settle down on one of the flattened rocks that lay scattered about the riverbed as though thrown down at random by the Divine Hand. “It’s best to keep close to the riverbed,” he explained in a deadpan manner, “leopards don’t like water and so won’t come near you there.” I was beginning to appreciate this guy’s humor while fretting to myself that there is usually an element of truth to the understated joke. As he left me alone to see about supper, I quickly scurried across a few rounded boulders, one of which had sizable patties of moist and what seemed like fresh elephant dung, a good sign perhaps, Raj later told me, since they probably would not backtrack to this area again having recently passed through. The boys had collected many thick stumps and branches to fuel the great bonfire that now blazed with thrilling abandon atop a nearby flat boulder, illuminating the darkness of the night with its brilliance and warmth. Left alone for the time being, while the two guides and their helpers sorted out the camp and prepared the evening meal, I gazed reflectively into the primitive light and warmth of the fire that gasped and hissed and spit off large sparks with a resounding crack. There was no doubt that in the total darkness, replete with the unrecognizable and eerie sounds of the night animals, this primitive fire evoked feelings of assurance and welcome as one can expect from the family hearth, recalling a comment of St. James in his Epistle 3:5: “Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth.”
I sat there like the Buddha, patiently awaiting my supper a stone’s throw from the blazing fire that illuminated the night with its animal light. The fire too is a wild thing of the jungle, another of God’s mysterious gifts to humanity and reminiscent of the celestial fire that burns daily in the heavens as our sun, giving energy and light to the earth below. There is purity and incorruptibility in fire that reaches down into the core of things and that awakens mysteries long dormant within us, perhaps that is why we can sit there and stare into its hypnotizing dance of flame and movement. The earth is suddenly unearthly. We are accustomed to routine, order and civilized forces; not the wild, primitive experience you are likely to meet in the jungle, like a monster with one eye. There is something mesmerizing about a fire, particularly one such as this illuminating the absolute darkness of the jungle; one looks upon it as if seeing the very first fire in the world. It draws you into its primitive mystique with the flickering of its multiple tongues, reaching, sparking, disappearing into nothingness only to return with greater force, greater light. It is the energy and trust of the wood in movement, heat and light, reaching out to us with its comforting message of warmth, security and hope. Fire touches the soul with its brilliance because it is already there inside me, fire meeting fire in mutual embrace.
Beyond the riverbed, I could see a bustle of activity among my courtiers, flashlights flaring into the darkness with nervous assurance that there are sources of illumination nearby in spite of the darkness. Before I could say “what happened to the lights” or “who transported me here into the riverbed of a jungle”, I was served up a tiffin of tasty noodles with a side of curried meatballs accompanied by a salad of chopped cabbage and other greens. This was followed by chocolate cookies and fresh fruit, all washed down with a cup of green tea. The Grand Oriental couldn’t have done better, and certainly could not match the rarefied ambiance of this particular setting, far more ancient than the nearly 200 year old hotel where I stayed on the first night in Colombo.
Raj sat with me and ate his own dinner as the shadows of the fire flickered across his face like moody ghosts, regaling me with stories of other trips through other jungles. “You have done very well considering your age,” he assured me. “Gayan and I were wondering when we first met you whether you would be able to hold up to the rigors of this adventure. You have done very well indeed.” Even though I had known Raj for only a few days, he seemed closer to me then than a childhood friend, as though I had known him for a thousand years. You do not travel for days with another person such as my guide Raj, relying on his knowledge, experience and expertise, not to mention one’s very life in walking through uninhabited jungle that is home to wild animals, without getting to know the person like an old friend. I quietly steered him toward the subject of elephants without giving myself and my fears away.
We had been waiting for the arrival of an elephant the entire day and now that we were settled into our makeshift camp for the night, an unannounced arrival was never far from my mind, particularly as I sat alone in the darkness waiting for my dinner to arrive. The fire was comforting and was kept ablaze the entire night with a welter of thick logs the boys had gathered; but between its flickering light and the beam of a powerful torch, I could see clear down the riverbed that parted the two walls of the jungle. What on earth would we, would I do, if a tired, thirsty elephant wandered out of the darkness past the wall of the jungle into the riverbed below our campsite. The jungle whispers things into your ear that you did not know about yourself, until this encounter with the immense solitude of the jungle trail that opens up this alien world, this encounter with the great unpredictable animal kingdom, where random whispers of the mind provide unrelenting fodder for the wild jungle of my imagination, raising the specter of life and death, of fear and cowardice and other unfamiliar premonitions raising their cat’s eyes over the horizon of our emotional world, feelings that wage war with one’s self perception of nobility, strength and courage in the face of adversity, of the savage wilderness in the form of wild animals making themselves known in territory where they are at home and you are the stranger in a far land.
There is an intimacy to the jungle that belies its savage appearance. At first, it draws you into its primitive mystique, only to strip you naked and bare of all pretentions and graces, reducing you to nothing more than a nondescript individual with nothing to offer but premonitions, fears and the possibility of continued survival, nothing more. The jungle can kill you without a care in the world, and that too is a kind of intimacy. Its indifference to humanity and the animal kingdom is legendary and nothing, neither civilization nor natural law, can change the “law of the jungle” as it has existed down from primitive times to the present-day modern era. Upon entering native jungle, a person leaves civilization behind with all its grandeur and trappings and wraps oneself in the cloak of simplicity, endurance and survival.
Beyond the river, beyond the range of sight, the elephants waited to make their appearance behind an invisible wall separating one reality from one’s premonitions of the mind. The forest stood up spectrally in the light of the half moon, dense and chaotic under the magic spell of borrowed moonlight, and through that dim stir of the night, gentle breezes brought a chill into the air after the tropical heat of the day. One could hear words spoken that only the wind and the trees can say. Among the distant sounds of night birds and frogs, the silence of the land went home to one’s very heart, evoking the jungle’s mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life behind every leaf, twig and tree bough. The monkeys and leopards are asleep now, but Raj tells me that elephants sleep very little and often take naps standing in situ in the afternoon in cooling shade under the canopy of trees. We were waiting for the elephants, elephants who could show up at any minute to disturb the serenity of this jungle experience with their wild unpredictable nature, elephants who never came, but who were always there in the imagination, waiting to fill us up with primitive premonitions of fear and hope that the measure of existence is but a hair’s breadth between living and dying.
Raj and I laugh off our fears sipping the goodness and comforting calm-ness of hot green tea as we survey the darkness with our torches. Raj tells me a story as we fanaticize about phantom elephants. “I was on a safari tour in the National Game Reserve where many tourists go to see the animals in their natural setting. There is little danger, much less than what we are experiencing exposed and on foot as we are on equal footing with the animals, the difference being that the animals are wary of us but we are fearful of them and what they can do to us. In the national game reserve, everyone stays in their vehicles creating a barrier between man and the animals. The Minister of the Interior was in the party and I was very conscious of my responsibility to take care of him, as I take care of all the people in my charge as my sacred duty. But, after all, he was a minister. Suddenly, there was an elephant in the road down in the distance. When he saw us, no correction, when he smelt us as elephants have very poor eyesight, he was annoyed and began to charge, gaining speed on our vehicle which was stopped along the road. The elephant can move faster than you think and was getting close to the vehicle. I knew I had to do something, but didn’t know what, for the sake of the Minister, who sat wide-eyed and wondering behind me. I just jumped out of the jeep, put my hand out in front of me, palm up like this, and shouted “No, away”. Elephants can be gentle animals, in spite of their imposing size. It was enough to distract and deter the confused elephant, who turned and hustled off back into the wall of the jungle.” In the distance, around my tent, the boys had erected several kerosene torches that would burn through the night. “The animals, especially elephants, don’t like the smell of kerosene. This should keep them away from the camp,” Raj said as we left the riverbed and prepared to bed down in our sleeping bags for the long night ahead. “And watch out for that elephant dung over there on the rocks. You don’t want that to get stuck on your trainers,” he quipped.
End of Part 1
The next morning was indeed a new day. We would break camp and trek further into elephant country for most of the day before arriving at a major waterfall at the other end of the uninhabited jungle where we would be picked up by car and taken to a hotel for the night in a town called Hatton. Having survived the night, it seemed like the elephants were gone forever and would never return, even in my wildest fantasy. After a plate full of eggs, home-made toasted bread with butter and marmalade, sliced fruits, and Nescafe complete with milk and sugar, these culinary delights shook off my fear of elephants and I was again ready to brave the elements of the jungle and make my way to the Falls six or seven hours away as the crow flies.
We live, we dream, we travel to remote destinations in search of adventure, novelty, pleasure, when lo and behold we find ourselves on the jungle path for a second day when the stuff of dreams has become the facts of a hard reality; we are alone with ourselves, our strengths, our weaknesses, our determination, our survival, our loss, the sum total of our emotional life amounting to a package wrapped in the ancient parchment of our lives and adorned with the ribbons of our accomplishments. Two hours on foot into mid-morning after an early start, abandoning the camp that had been my overnight home for less than 24 hours, we took our first break, snacking on crackers (for energy Raj said) and bottled water. I was already drenched in sweat and resigned myself to trekking through the day in that condition, up and down hills, skirting steep inclines, hopping downhill from rock to twisted root to rock.
Nature’s bounty continued to prosper. Raj had a special interest in birds and was quick to point out the names of indigenous (and non-indigenous) species. He was actually carrying in his backpack a thick encyclopedia on birds that he referred to periodically and to which I showed perfunctory interest. A woodpecker not a few meters from my sight range did stop me in my tracks and Raj affirmed what I suspected: “You don’t often see these birds up close like this in their natural environment.” We continued to thrash our way through the jungle brush, full of sharp twigs, thorny bushes, and dangerous ant-hills. “You don’t want to step on those unless you want the entire ant colony crawling up your legs,” Raj quipped. Stopping for a second to wipe the sweat from my eyes with a sodden handkerchief, I saw in front of me along the track an exquisite spider’s web, a delicate configuration amounting to the intricate designs found in Islamic art, its silver threaded web glittering magically in the sunlight. The glorious web, connected to two branches of a tree along the track, harbored the still presence of a huge spider the size of my hand, its rectangular body itself a study in the multi-colors of black, yellow, and green.
We weren’t long into the trek—we still had most of the day to go until we reach our destination at the waterfall—when we came to an abrupt halt. We were not yet done waiting for the elephants. I have not written much about my tracker, Gayan, partly because I wasn’t able to communicate with him much because of his limited English although he listened to my stories as though he understood every word. Indeed, as a local tracker with good knowledge of the jungle in that area of the central highlands, he was a highly valued guide to have along with us. He was tall and thin, but incredibly strong and resilient, the backpack and other essential supplies thrown over his shoulder without bother. He moved up and down the endless hills and through the jungle like an animal in his own right. Raj told me that he had grown up in the jungle and as a young child had become well familiar with its disappearing tracks and elusive, unpredictable animals. He was seemingly afraid of nothing and some of his nobility and courage in the face of the unknown was contagious. One felt reassured by his presence on the trail. Even Raj seemed to defer to him with respect when it came to jungle proprieties and etiquette. Raj had powerful binoculars, but Gayan had the intensity of his own impenetrable stare. After a brief pause, he indicated with a wave of the hand that it was safe to continue. Periodically for the next several hours, he would stop and stare for moments at a time into the distance beyond, then lead us forward.
Several hours further along the jungle trail, after a lunch of cheese sandwiches and crackers washed down with more water to offset the sweat pouring into my eyes and clothing, Raj shouted over my shoulder as he took up the rear. “Take a look to your left.” With a quick glance, half expecting a hooded snake to be coming my way with poisonous venom dripping from its fangs, I saw instead what looked like a child’s sand castle the color of burnished orange standing several meters high at the base of a tree. The question spread across my face was quickly answered: “Termites. They build extensively, as you can see, around the base of the tree. They like wood,” he added with a cheeky grin, “not blood like the leeches.” Considering the amount of dead leaves that were strewn about the jungle, not to mention the fallen branches and tree trunks that impeded our way, they were certainly not on a starvation diet and had no reason to bother us. Where were the snakes, I wondered at one point, or bees for that matter? It would have been so easy to step on a slithering snake, have one fall from the annoying vines and creepers that hung down from the branches that kept slapping us in the face. For the record, I didn’t see a single snake or bee the entire trip, even though I was warned beforehand that Sri Lanka had dangerous poisonous snakes to contend with.
We soldiered on hour after hour taking short mini-breaks for water and cookies to restore us to a sense of normalcy. A sense of value, order, routine, and control of one’s person and environment are left at the door of the jungle and have no place within its confines. As we trekked along the twisted route, I told Raj my guide about a book written by a British officer called Chapman who was stationed in Malaysia at the start of the Second World War. He stayed behind enemy lines for several years after the Japanese overran the Malayan Peninsula and lived in the jungle until the end of the war. He wrote a gripping book entitled The Jungle is Neutral that I had read many years ago when I lived and work in Malaysia back in the late 80s. Early in the book, he vividly describes his first impressions upon entering the dense jungle terrain:
The thing that astonished me most was the absolute straightness, the perfect symmetry of the tree-trunks, like the pillars of a dark and limitless cathedral. The ground itself was covered with a thick carpet of dead leaves and seedling trees. There was practically no earth visible, and certainly no grass or flowers. Up to a height of ten feet or so a dense undergrowth of young trees and palms of all kinds hid the roots of the giants, but out of this wavy green sea of undergrowth a myriad tree-trunks rose straight upwards with no apparent decrease in thickness – that was the most extraordinary thing – for a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet before they burgeoned into a solid canopy of green which almost entirely shut out the sky. The tree-trunks, thought similar in that they were all straining upwards towards the light, were of every color and texture of bark – smooth and black like Purbeck marble, red and scaly as our own Scots pine, pale grey or ghostly green like the nightmare jungles in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, or beautifully marbled and dappled like a moth’s wing.
Chapman had certainly got it right. There seems to be rank neutrality to the jungle that does not harbor good as good and evil as evil, but rather contains a mixture of elements at ease in their own nature that reflect a world indifferent to our human world. It is what it is and we are the intruders who enter without knocking. Everything exists according to the rightful nature in which it was created, from the myriad butterflies, giant, colorful, fleeting, to the black, blue-green spider at rest in its web, to the termites in their houses, the ants in their underground colonies, the poisonous centipedes crawling on a hundred legs, the bees in their well-constructed hives, not to mention the wealth of animals from the deer to the leopard, the elephant to the wild boar, the monkey to the mongoose. It seems to be indifferent to anything beyond what it is as nature’s wild, earthly paradise.
In the jungle, there is no pretending, no pretense, and no lies. With hu-manity, the art of pretension has risen to great heights; people may show with aplomb an untruth on their face that is not in their hearts, while in the wild within the face of the jungle lies its very heart. In some strange way, it is as though the spirit world has come to invade the physical world through the animation of insects, creepy-crawlers and wild animals. I witnessed armies of ants making their regimental way across a twig in the trail, a fat, black millipede using its hundreds of legs in mythological rhythm and synchronicity to get wherever it was going, the wild boars dig their roots by the side of the track. The stealth of the mongoose, the shyness of the deer, the majesty of the elephant, the sleekness of the leopard all represent archetypal qualities in the physical form of an animal and all reside within the cruel truth of the jungle without pretense or complaint.
We sometimes refer to the major cities of the world as a jungle; but such places as New York and Paris, Bangkok and Shanghi are not jungle in its true st sense. There is purity within the heart of the jungle that these cities cannot claim to possess. The true jungle makes no claims and does not pretend to be anything beyond what it is. The jungle stares but does not wink; it nods but does not smile; it opens itself up, invites you in, only to challenge you as an intruder who cannot find home or resting place, only a grim tolerance of its overbearing atmosphere from the tangled and exposed roots to the gnarled shrubs, the dead and decaying undergrowth, the termite-infested and rotting tree trunks laying helplessly across the narrow, overgrown track, the hanging vines, the massive, fallen trees, the perpetual twilight, the sudden shafts of light, threads really, that shine through the gloom like a promise contained with a stylus of light. The jungle is wrapped like a ball of yarn in a mystery that will never be unraveled. It is predator and prey, wet and dry, light and darkness, life and death. Upon entering its rarefied confines, a veil had been drawn aside to reveal the beating of a mysterious heart that could never be fully comprehended, only experienced for what it truly is. I have read about the jungle in books over the years; but no book contains the descriptive words that can do justice to this unique experience, written with indelible ink upon the mind and heart of the traveler in its midst.
By all accounts from my two guides, I had been assured that today’s trek would be more difficult than yesterday’s, but shorter. Having been a long distance runner for many years, I have a good sense of time, of distance, of effort expended. Today’s trek was proving to be not only more difficult, dangerous even when in a number of instances, we had to consider using ropes to either get up and down a particularly onerous hill; but also much longer than the day before. Our lunch of sandwiches and crackers had long since passed and we were on another rest and water break when Gayan pointed ahead with his index finger and the thumbs up sign, another hour would bring us to the falls, our final destination that day where we would be picked up and taken to a hotel in a town several hours away. Feeling euphoric at having been able to manage the trek without any awkward incidents or undue disasters, the hour slipped away with the sweat of my brow. We could hear the roar of the falls from the distance announcing itself to the world in the voice of a great basso profundo opera singer.
There is something unearthly about a waterfall in its natural jungle setting. It was as though we had come through two days of struggle, trekking through unbelievably rough, inhuman terrain and welcomed by this otherworldly sight. The beauty of the falls is matched by the riot of trees and foliage that surrounded it. The deafening roar of the falling water breaks the silence and solitude of the jungle with its operatic voice, while the ethereal mist unearths the onlookers and lifts them off their feet, recalling the phrase of certain African tribesmen who referred to the great Victoria Falls as “the smoke that thunders”. The free fall descent of water from great heights over rocky jagged cliffs inspires wonder and reflection after the tedious trek through the jungle where one’s attention needed to be focused on every step taken. I bathed my eyes at the glorious vision and light of the falls surging downward into the gorge and the receiving pool below, thinking that this was indeed a fitting conclusion to the arduous journey that we three had made through the jungle. We sat for a while on the opposite cliff gazing reflectively at the staggering spectacle. Beautiful birds floated in and around the falls as though paying tribute to its eternal charm. When Livingstone saw Victoria Falls for the first time, he wrote in his journal: “No one can imagine the beauty of the view. Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” The jungle stream, having been confined to narrow places as it threaded its way through the jungle, amid boulders and rock that impeded its natural flow, was finally able to break free, boiling over the edge of the cliff as the water took on wings to fly like the birds and the angels.
* * *
That night, we returned to the original campsite where I stayed on the first night. The black puppy greeted my return to the camp with excitement and joy and continued to follow me around for the rest of the night, no doubt waiting for dinner to be served. The driver Sandalal was also happy to see us since he had stayed the previous night alone in the jungle camp. “The lights went off,” he told me, “and I didn’t even have a torch to show the way. So, I went to bed,” he said resignedly in his fluent English. No doubt, the unspoken truth was that he missed the companionship of the group but was reluctant to say so.
We had two more days of trekking scheduled, but the time for moving through uninhabited jungle with the threat of wild animals was now over. The following morning, Sandalal drove us to the edge of an extensive pine forest through which we would make our way for much of the day. He promised to pick us up later than afternoon on the other side of the forest to take us to a nice hotel in a town called Hatton. Early in the trek, we walk through extensive tea plantations that were laid out across the hills like a lush carpet. We stopped briefly to talk with mother and son, tea leaf pickers, a cloth bag tied around their heads and hanging down their backs. Raj told me that they were paid by the weight of the bag. The work was grueling; their faces happy and smiling as I waved to them one last time from the distance.
The forest trek turned out to be a study in contrast to what I had experienced in the jungle. There is something magisterial about a pine forest that makes walking through it virtually a spiritual experience. As evidenced in the photo, the tall, stately trees make humans appear as pigmies in contrast. There is an ancient spirit to the forest that makes itself known through shafts of sunlight, blankets of pines, the stately trees themselves that stand vertical and incredibly tall, evenly dispersed across steep rolling hills. There is well-defined space here between the trees, standing like dancers in various attitudes and poses, ready to continue the dance. I pick up a pine cone that reminds me of my New England home, to admire its perfection. There is a message of nature contained within its harmonious form. I wonder what it is as I toss it back where it belongs. I don’t want to carry the world away with me and prefer to travel light, taking note of things as I go along and absorbing their essence without wishing to preserve them as memorable trinkets of my journey.
We spent much of the day trekking leisurely through the pine trees, feeling dwarfed by these silent sentinels of the earth. People are born, live and die, but trees watch over the earth through the millennia and contribute to the harmonies of the natural order with their calm and stately repose. Cultures may fade into oblivion and entire civilizations may crumble and die without disturbing their magnificent nobility and self containment. Barring accidents or the machinations of humankind, they give every appearance of being immortal. In order to die a natural death, a tree needs an abundance of time and nature holds no surprises for them that they cannot bear. Perhaps that is why the wanton destruction of the great forests of the world seems so evil and so unnatural. Some trees were in their prime when Christ walked the earth. No other thing in nature has looked down upon the passing of the centuries as these regal monarchs of the great primeval forests. We are indeed strangers in their midst.
The forests themselves are a remarkable study in self containment and splendor. The silence of a forest can be deafening; countless trees are gathered together as a forest unity in mute splendor, like some great magnificent spirit. There is a message in a forest cathedral and its gathering of trees that speaks directly to our inner soul. Indeed, the heart song of the tree is never as plain as when it sings its message of nobility and endurance within the human breast. They have endurance and longevity; some of them are tens of centuries old and have taken 3,000 years to grow their rings. We can relate to trees because they are well rooted and stand tall, in memory of the vertical aspiration that exists within every person who yearns for the promises of Heaven including the immortal life that a tree so well emulates.
The heart of the forest inspires reverence and awe. It radiates its character of sublime wilderness and conveys its feeling of a wild inviolability to all who enter its confines. One walks softly and subdued within the general calm of its sublime depths as if in some vast hall that has been pervaded by the deepest sanctities and solemnities evidenced within Nature. Every tree seems to have a spiritual quality; every branch and leaf reaches upward towards the heavens as if to uphold the sky with the consciousness of God. These age old patriarchs never cease their worship and praise, but are forever conscious of the Divinity within the confines of their own sacred nature. Would that we could emulate the tree and exhibit the same unfailing integrity and fortitude in our own nature
In walking through the grandeur of a forest wood, I feel myself shedding the turmoil of my days and observe the stately pines with the natural eye of the chip monk and the owl. The residue of some melancholy heartbreak has come and gone; the frustration and failure of my routine efforts no longer find firm ground; the anger, jealousy and other petty miseries that punctuate the days of a life disappear into some passing wind. The rays of light find their way through the branches and leaves to cast their warm glow onto the forest floor like a torch from heaven. Their photons have passed millions of miles to make their presence felt within the human mind. The trees of the forest stand tall and lend something of their calm, ennobling grace. Through their act of giving, they become a part of me and I become a part of them, a living, walking, breathing tree, a pillar of strength, standing tall, rooted to the earth but immortal because of a vision that leads us beyond the horizon here on earth.
One final day remained to spend time in the Makandewa tropical rain forest which is a lowland rainforest with a high diversity of flora and fauna endemic to Sri Lanka. A small metal raft transported us, including Sandalal, our driver who decided to brave the elements, to the other side of the river and the entrance to the rain forest proper. We entered the forest on a small pathway, Sandalal’s rubber thongs flapped against the moss-covered stones of the path. “Now you can have a taste of the jungle, my fair friend,” I said to the driver, who was a great kidder in his own right and love to laugh. Raj and I had mercilessly kidded him throughout the trip as he sat comfortably behind the wheel of his much loved, battery-operated Prius, about his habit of putting on a sarong (a wrap-around, often floral colored piece of cloth similar to the batik sarongs worn in Malaysia by the Malays). As soon as Lal was back at camp in the evening, he would rush to change into the comfort of his sarong. “You like the free, open feeling of the sarong and you are not at home without it,” Raj quipped and I couldn’t resist making comments of my own. “You remember the freedom of your sarong, Lal, all tied up now in your pants and shirt.” Lal’s shy giggles proved the truth of what we were saying. Having lived in Malaysia for several years, I too had developed a love of the sarong and often climb into my old Malaysia sarong as soon as I get home from work.
We make one last push, one last effort, as we proceed gingerly through this humid rainforest. The quality of the rainforest is slightly different from the raw, uninhabited, animal-infested jungle that we had been trekking through the last few days. The rain trees of the forest stand stately and magnificent in their ancient presence. These trees are old, old, and old. Their vines and creepers reach down from great heights like an old woman’s shawl, hanging down to earth as though in supplication; some of them actually enter the ground to form roots and sprouts of their own. There is the aura of sacred sanctuary about the place that is unmistakable and eerie, as in a Gothic cathedral. Creepy crawlers and other insects abound and are at home. Not five minutes into the trek, we came across, not a centipede but a millipede, according to Raj, an impressively large hundred-legged crawler. Residual skylight reflected mirrors of light off its sleek black rounded body as it made its determined away across a damp rock, no doubt searching for the dead leaves and ample plant matter that lay scattered everywhere.
Not much later, in my vigilance stepping over the scattered rocks and roots along the track and not wishing to end up with a twisted angle which was a real and ever-present danger in a jungle trek, I noticed a remarkable army of ants marching in a narrow, congested column across the path. I noticed them because there were so many of them; they actually darkened the trail they were following in such regimented order. A lengthy tree branch extended randomly across the path and they dutifully mounted this stick, for them seemingly a kind of bridge, in great numbers following some mandate of their inscrutable minds. I noted as I step over the stick so as not to disturb the advance of the ant column that they were disturbed anyway. Ants fell away off the stick and started to run every which way as though suddenly gone mad, breaking open the regiment into chaotic confusion at the presence of my black walking shoes moving overhead. I couldn’t help but recall the meek voice of Woody Allen in the film Antz expecting to be crushed at any moment by a giant human.
It seemed that we were moving uphill for much of the time. Does this hill never move downward, I thought to myself. At various points, we came to dangerous footing amid cascading rocks and we had the exquisite sight of rapids and various mini-water walls along the jungle stream we were following. Raj had mentioned that we were likely to encounter leeches aplenty in this rain forest and I marveled at Lal, our funny driver, who strolled through the jungle with his bare feet wrapped only in rubber thongs, while I wore thick stocks that came to my knees and heavy pants. Still, it wasn’t long before I felt a telltale pinching itch on the front of my lower leg. Sure enough, when I raised my pant-leg, a leech has lodged its blood-sucking head firmly under my skin. Apart from the powers of the imagination working on our delicate sensibilities, leeches are far less horrible that one imagines from the comfort of an armchair when talking about jungle inconveniences. Granted one must be careful to extricate them in such a way as not to leave the head under the skin since this can lead to serious problems and infection. A leech alert was sounded and Gayan, my faithful tracker, ran back and applied a transparent liquid that he carried in a small bottle in his backpack for this very purpose. The leech quickly squirmed out from under the skin and fell back onto the jungle floor. Another one was attempting to crawl through my shoelaces and so I quickly took off the trainer to get rid of the offending, indeed the disgusting, blood-sucker. “Why don’t they suck your blood,” I said accusingly to Sandalal who smiled back his answer. “They only like white American blood.”
As we exited the great rain forest, we suddenly passed back through the invisible door into the civilized world we had left behind. At the edge of the jungle, we walked through a temple courtyard with its scent of incense and flowers and the sound of tinkling bells into the dusty road of the small village lined with banana trees waving their broad, fan-like leaves at our passing. A group of small children, an infant being carried in one of the young girl’s arms, rushed up to greet me. They knew me to be a stranger, not one of their own, a white man, a foreigner, but children don’t care about such things, any more than they cared that I was exhausted, drenched in sweat, bleary-eyed from the effort of the jungle trek, and wishing to be air-lifted to the courtyard of my hotel. The sight of these young souls quickly revived my spirits. They surrounded me with their broad smiles and colorful clothes, their wide eyes at once respectful and shy. One brave little boy agreed to sit on the knee of the dragon and the moment has been preserved as a fitting end to a unique and memorable week-long experience trekking through the jungles and rainforests of Sri Lanka only to be welcomed by a group of young children at journey’s end.
* * *
With a feeling of departure and melancholy in the air, we climbed back into Sandalal’s prized Prius one final time as a group to make our way over the hills and valleys of the central highlands on our way to the coast and the town of Negombo, not far from the airport. The town itself is as of some historical interest and because of its affiliations with the Catholic Church is often referred to as “Little Rome”. The guesthouse I stay in that night served me a historic home-made dinner representative of the culinary delights to be experienced with its creamy curries and tasty breads. The town’s colorful past has witnessed the comings and goings of the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British, all of whom had laid claim to the area at different times down through history. Now the town and surrounding area are famous for its production of cinnamon, Sri Lanka being the source of a large percentage (80 to 90%) of the world’s supply of the much loved spice.
Gayan was the first to take his leave in a nearby town where he could catch the bus and return to the home ground of his village, wife and young children near the campsite where we stayed the first night. Raj, whom I had grown to consider as a brother and friend over the few days we had journeyed together, was the next to go, being dropped off nearby Colombo where he would make his way back into the capital city to take up his next posting after a few days rest. Good-bye old friend, until another trek, another day. We live in a modern world that brings us to far-flung places and occasions the development of intense relationships with people who offer their service and devotion for a brief period of time that soon disappears into the night of our past. Sandalal deposited me at the guesthouse where I would stay that final night and would take me the next day to the airport for a final good-bye and the flight back home. Yes, I go through body searches, customs, formalities, paperwork, stamps, to arrive inside a flying machine full of amenities. We are air-borne once again, leaving behind this beautiful, mountainous, exotic island with its lush jungles, tea plantations and rain forests, to welcome other travelers with its simplicity and hospitality, indeed to shed a teardrop into their hearts on another day.
In years to come, when I think of this brief interlude to the distant island of Sri Lanka, I will always see my three travel companions—the tracker, the driver and the English-speaking guide—as they were in their true st light escorting their foreign guest through the wilds of their beloved country with compassion and care for his safety and happiness. Gayan still stands in my mind as he stood that morning in the wilderness of the jungle, stock still under an awning of dripping rain trees, his right hand raised in warning again a phantom elephant along the rugged path ahead. Sandalal still stands meditatively in thronged rubber sandals in the gurgling stream, surrounded by the thick foliage of the jungle encroaching from all sides of the rain forest. No doubt his wife and sons and unspoken desires roam through his mind with a will of their own, but his thoughts are for the safety and comfort of the guest as he reaches out his hand to guide me across the slippery rocks of the fresh mountain stream. And finally Raj, vigilant as ever in his zippered boots, holding his binoculars in hand for the indigenous bird or flying squirrel that may cross our path to delight the trekkers with their natural beauty and grace.
They are not old or young, good or bad, fair or dark, stranger or friend; but will now live forever as companions of an aging professor on a unique journey into the wilds of Sri Lanka. They watched over, fed and took care of an old man who fell into the river, tripped on jungle snares, stumbled exhausted into the camp at dusk drenched in sweat, sat on a boulder in the light of a jungle bonfire waiting for the elephants to arrive out of the shad-ows of the distant riverbed. The elephants never came; they didn’t have to. It was enough that they were phantoms of the imagination for a time, moving up and down the jungle trails of the mind under a distant moon that shines the magic of its borrowed light down upon the earth, to steal the darkness of the night from the jungle track.
END OF PART 2 (and end of the story)
Reader Reviews for
"Waiting for Elephants"
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|Reviewed by John Herlihy
|Thanks, Ron. As always, very interesting comments. I hope to avoid following the same route as Harry Devert, although off the beaten track, anything can happen.|
|Reviewed by Ronald Hull
|You certainly have a way with words when describing the jungle. And your fears. In spite of the stories, I believe I have less fear than you, although I only encountered black bear (twice), bobcat (unseen but heard) and wild boar in full charge (thankfully not at me) in my treks into wilderness.
Your description of Colombo reminds me of Dacca Bangladesh, although it is much poorer and the Intercontinental Hotel is rather new. From your descriptions, you took the first class route with the best guides and porters. Probably what I would do in your situation. It harkens back to the British expeditions of the 19th century.
While I admire Chekhov, I decided to use my whole name, like Arthur C. Clarke, a resident of Sri Lanka for my author name. I was also fortunate to have an engineering energy conservation intern for one summer from Sri Lanka. He was a very fine fellow and did very good work for me, but I did not develop a close relationship with him as his supervisor, unlike I did with others from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Thailand whose homes I stayed in my travels rather than hotels.
There are other dangers out there besides wildlife. I just read the story of Harry Devert. He was a seasoned traveler all over the world who had a website where he published his travels and adventures. In 2014 he set off to complete a motorcycle trip encompassing 14,000 miles between North and South America, culminating in the World Cup in Brazil. Early in his trip, he took the wrong road in Mexico, was suspected of being a DEA agent by rival cartels at war, and captured, tortured and killed.