Zandi warned me in advance not to go to the Tooth Temple as it’s just not worth it. By accident, I successfully proved they were right. I just wanted to see the garden around the temple and I bought a ticket. It turns out the garden is open to the public for free of charge. You only need to buy a ticket to inside the temple. Well, since I was there with a ticket in my hand then why not go in.
Again, I don’t remember the exact details but when Buddha was cremated one of the residual teeth was obviously stolen. It was said that whoever had the tooth had the authority to rule the country. Over the centuries the tooth was stolen and smuggled in and out of the country. Some say that the Portuguese even crushed the tooth so the tooth in the temple is not even the original one. But it doesn’t really change the fact that the 8-inch tooth in the temple belonged to Buddha and became a relic. It’s just a matter of faith. The tooth can be seen by anyone who is willing to stand in a queue for hours and possibly be crushed by the crowd. When I arrived only a few people were lounging at the sanctuary but later more and more people arrived. The atmosphere was a bit like a poorly-organised concert where no one knows what’s happening, where to stand and from where you can see the main event the best. Half the people mostly consisted of tourists, the others were locals or tourists from all around Sri Lanka. There was an enclosure where hundreds stood in line to express their faith and devotion. Then a gong went off and the whole ceremony began. All those who were in line were herded into a tiny sanctuary one at a time. They bowed, offered some flowers, took a few photos and then left. They spent no more than 18 seconds in the sanctuary. It looked like a conveyor belt made out of humans. And it went on for an hour or so. As I didn’t queue, I was just standing outside, I didn’t see the tooth. Only the back of the people. I was never a fan of worshipping any relics. Crowd, noise, heat and all the good fun. I understand it’s good to see something that belonged to a holy person but still. The whole atmosphere just ruins everything. How the hell can you immerse yourself in any way if you’re herded through like cattle. I get it. But actually, I don’t. And the ticket was also expensive compared to other things. I know they need money to maintain the temple but then it becomes a vicious circle. Ah, nevermind.
The tooth is kept in the temple and only taken out for festive holidays. It is then carried by a very special elephant. So special that it’s really hard to find one. Someone came up with the idea that the tooth can only be carried by a high-cast elephant. Which means that all 7 parts of their body must touch the ground when they stand upright. Yes, all seven. Including ‘that’ as well. It is really hard to find an elephant like that. The most famous elephant, Raja, died after 30 years of service. And now he is nicely stuffed and exhibited in a separate room. Really bizarre sight. So far, I haven’t seen anything stuffed larger than a wolf. I wish I’d only seen the wolf.
The rest of the Tooth Temple is indeed really nice and interesting, but the Tooth relic just didn’t cut it for me. Next to the temple is yet another shrine or a sort of museum where nicely decorated paintings tell the story of the Tooth. That’s where I started laughing out loud. Not because of the paintings. There was a guy who was praying in front of a Buddha statue wearing a Game of Thrones shirt saying ‘Winter is coming’. It was just simply surreal. He plain and simple crushed all the holiness of the place. I wanted to take a photo of him and Buddha but I just didn’t want to disturb him. Or to be honest I couldn’t have taken a picture without laughing into his face. That sight forever burned into my brain. Better than Buddha’s tooth.
The following morning I ran out of cigarettes, which wouldn’t have been a problem if I had been in another city, but here in Kandy, it wasn’t a five-minute shopping. First of all, I learned that it is forbidden to smoke on the street in Sri Lanka. It was a bit of a shock for me as so far I was smoking without anyone telling me not to do so. Why did nobody say anything? The answer is trivial. Because I’m white. WE can almost do anything without being told off or fined. Since then I have completely stopped smoking on the street.
I went to every shop I found but I couldn’t buy any. I was toying with the idea to go to another city to see if I had more luck there but then I remembered the perfect solution. Let’s find the dealer from the day before. If he can get weed he must be able to get some cigarettes as well. Obviously, he could. I was worried a bit how I’m going to find him, but after 14 seconds I just bumped into him. I told him I still didn’t need weed but I could kill for a pack of cigis. No problem, Sir. I was sure it wouldn’t be a problem. After 20 minutes of rambling up and down in narrow streets we got into a tiny shop which a sane person wouldn’t enter in a lifetime. He said something to the owner and then he asked for money. I gave him 4000Rs (£2) and then he ran out of the shop leaving me behind without saying anything. Sure, that’s normal. Is he ever coming back? If not, how long should I wait? Or wait at all? I tried to chit chat with the shopkeeper but no English sir. A few minutes passed. No sign of the guy. A couple of people were gathering around me with big smiles on their faces and asked the same questions like the others before. Country Sir? I don’t get scared easily but I definitely didn’t feel safe there. I stood in a darkly lit store wearing a backpack with all my money in it. I had so much photography stuff in it that a family could live on it for years. I didn’t want to run away like a chicken. Also I needed those cigarettes. Addiction kills you…
While I was waiting I quickly assessed which aikido technique would be the most useful against them in this tiny shop. Fortunately, I didn’t have to throw or pin anybody down as my buddy turned up after like 15 minutes. He handed over two packs as agreed. Wait a minute. One of them wasn’t the one I ordered. A sensible person would have thanked the service and left as fast as possible but not me. My friend, this is not the right cigarette. Can you get me the right one? Sorry Sir, no problem. And he left again. He was back within 5 minutes with the right order. It turned out, even he cannot get it easily as no one buys such an expensive cigarette around there. To be honest it was expensive for me too. Funnily enough ‘everything else’ would have been easier and cheaper to get….
I can confidently say that I felt at home in Kandy. (Well I don’t have any home now so I guess it makes Kandy my new home.) I found a bar where I became a regular and they were worried about me if I didn’t turn up within a day. I was driving around without using a GPS. I knew the best café places in town. I could get cigarettes from the black market. That’s home, right? And even the tuktuk drivers recognised me. Why? One day I had my regular morning coffee at Empire Café and when I left the place Bip Bop was gone. My heart stopped for a second or two. I had insurance so it wasn’t a big problem but if exchanging money takes half an hour in Sri Lanka then going to the police station and file for a stolen 3 wheeler would take days. Do. Not. Panic. I started asking around maybe someone has seen Bip Bop. I had a photograph of her but I guess every red tuktuk looks the same so I didn’t need to show it around. It was enough to say that it was red, it had a Sri Lankan flag and it was pretty new and dirty. Like the other 5374 tuktuks in town. After a couple of minutes of asking around one of the drivers recognised me and told me not to worry as she was fine. They just needed to push her to another place as somebody wanted to park where she was. That’s the Sri Lankan way. They just push each other’s tuktuk around if it’s in the way. He showed me where Bip Bop was. I was relieved that she was in one piece and alive. Although when I got closer to her I saw two strange looking characters sitting on the back seat. Again, that’s Sri Lanka. They do this kind of stuff here. Why not sit in other people’s tuktuk. Who cares?
I quickly smoked 3 cigarettes, one after the other just to calm my nerves and since I was among friends I happily shared half of my pack with the other drivers. We are a family. We share everything. Every tuktuk driver asks how much I paid for the tuktuk. They want to know if I know a place where they can get a better deal. I pay the ‘tourist’ price which is 2000Rs (£8). They usually pay 1200Rs (£5)per day. As it turned out, most of them are also renting the tuktuks on a daily basis. And it’s hard work. 1200Rs for hire, 5-600Rs (£2-3) for petrol. So in order to make the bare minimum they need to make at least 3000Rs (£13) a day. One of the guys I was talking to started at 6am in the morning and he didn’t have a single customer. It was around noon. And that’s when I understood why they are trying so hard to get customers. There are too many tuktuks out there and not many tourists. Also a tourist would pay 3 or 4 times more than a local since they don’t know the system and the rates. If they can get 4-5 foreign customers than they are sorted for the day. It can be done in a couple of hours or in 12 hours. In major cities the tuktuks have meters so they don’t need to fight for the customers as everyone pays the same. They still do but for different reasons. In the countryside or in smaller cities they don’t have meters so the tourists have to bargain and agree on the fare beforehand. And that’s how they can make big money. For me 4-500Rs (£2) is nothing for a 15-minute ride. For a local it is way too expensive. Just to put it into perspective. A bar staff in a restaurant earns 1000Rs (£4) per day. But the same ride would cost 150-200Rs (£1) for a local. More on that later.
About half an hour from Kandy lies a beautiful botanical garden called Peradeniya which was highly recommended by everyone I met. In the early 19th century it was dedicated to only grow cinnamon, tea and coffee but later it was turned into a proper park for visitors. I am still not a botanist so I could only recognise a few basic plants like palm trees or grass but it was really nice wandering around amongst the different kinds of trees, flowers and other stuff on barefoot. Or just watching monkeys chasing idiot tourists who gave them food. Speaking of chasing.
After half a day of rambling I sat down in the middle of a large grassy area and gazed into nothing. Not much later a couple of kids started circling around me with big smiles on their face. Hello Sir, how are you? Hiya. I replied. Then it all got lost in translation. I asked them what they were playing which they probably understood as if I’d asked if they wanted to play or not. I also completely misunderstood their reply as I thought they’d asked if I wanted to play or not. It didn’t really matter. Let’s just play. What is the most basic game that everyone understands? Tig. I quickly stood up and started running towards one of them. I saw the horror in the kid’s eye as he wasn’t sure if I wanted to kill him or what. I somehow managed to explain that we were playing tig so you should run. A few seconds later when he realized I meant no harm he started running. The game was on! We ran like hell. After I touched him on the shoulders, I told him it was his turn. I started to run. According to the old saying, Never look back while running from something or somebody. Never. Fucking. Ever. I just wanted to make sure he got it right so I peeked back. When I looked back I saw 40 kids running after me like crazy. The playground game turned into a survival game. I was chased by wild creatures. All yelling and shouting. It went on for at least half an hour. We became the main attraction of the park. Parents, teachers and other adults were laughing at a tall white guy chased by 8 year old kids. It felt damn good to play with those little people. Later, a couple of little girls joined the party which is really rare as girls didn’t really like me so far or they were just shy. Once I ran out of juice thanks to my shitty lungs I gave up. Then they started hugging me or just wanted to be as close to me as possible. It was a basic game but felt really good to play with them. Good energies all over the place. One of the boys really liked my sunglasses and wanted to keep them. I told him that they were mine and I’d like to hold onto them. But I let him wear them for the group photo.
After the photo the teachers came to rescue me but the kids had a really hard time leaving me so I decided to do that myself. There was a lot of hugging, high fives and some cheeky smiles. I don’t have kids and I really don’t know what to do with them but a simple game broke every barrier. Sri Lankan kids like me. And I like them too. They are good fun. And that’s why sometimes it’s heart-breaking to look at them and think about their possible future. There is not much hope for most of them. Just an example. There are so many kids walking around in saffron robe which means they are novices and once they reach 20 they become fully pledged monks. And in the majority of the cases they don’t make that decision. A 6-year-old boy obviously cannot be such a devoted Buddhist to be able to decide to be a monk. They just end up there simply because their parents have no money to feed them so the only option to survive is to join a monastery. I know it was always like that in the past, in other religions as well, but to see it with my own eyes is a bit different. And there are kids all over the world with the same problems. I know. Life is not fair; I know that too. And it’s a cliché. But spending more and more time in this country and seeing all this shit around me makes me a bit emotional. Most of them don’t have a chance to change their life. And it became really obvious when I was in the mountains. I’ll write more about it in the next couple posts,I got invited by a family and I had the chance to see their home and share a cup of tea and a few biscuits. A biscuit which costs less than 100Rs but still they don’t eat it every day. Like I do. Tons of it. They were the most beautiful family I’ve ever seen. And when I looked at the father I knew that is what they’d become too. The girls were destined to work on the tea plantations and the boys in the factories. They have absolutely no chance. Nothing. They will end up like their parents. Working their ass off to just barely survive. Of course, I don’t have to go to Sri Lanka to see that, but I’m here now. And I don’t want to cry and moan about it and state the obvious but I think sometimes we need to stop and reflect on how lucky and privileged we are just because we were born in Europe or born to be white. We have a huge advantage in every aspect of life. And being a white MALE… well… I don’t go into that…
In my next post I head towards the mountains and finally I can wear my jumper and my shoes which I’ve been carrying around for a month now. Not that I wanted to carry them but above 2000 meters it’s a bit chilly even in Sri Lanka. Also I’ll have my most spiritual experience since falling in love with my feet…