The sixth and final day of my group tour started off with a guided meditation session at a local Buddhist temple. As I’d enjoyed a few drinks with a couple of the girls into the wee hours of the morning (and by a few drinks, I mean we finished off a bottle of wine and then a bottle of vodka with various mixers from the minibar), I could very well have stayed in bed when my alarm went off after four hours of sleep. In my sleep deprived state, I feared I would nod off during the session, and interrupt everyone’s focused breathing with undignified snores and possibly a puddle of drool.
That said, I didn’t feel hungover, and I didn’t want to miss out on the meditation session, optional as it was, so I got ready and went down to the breakfast hall. Everyone else who was attending had already finished eating, so I had about two minutes to scoff a couple of pastries and down a glass of juice, before running to the bus with a croissant in hand. I made it just in the nick of time!
It only took a few minutes to reach the temple, and as it turned out, one of the girls had been left behind, so while the bus went back to retrieve her, we were given a personal viewing of the different rooms inside the temple. It did not seem like the sort of temple that was usually open to tourists, which made for a more intimate and insightful experience than some of the crowded temples we’d visited in preceding days. I really enjoyed how quiet and peaceful the surrounds were, and though the temple was small, it was very beautiful.
Eventually, we were led into a room with several cushions laid out for us on the floor. I settled into my spot up the front, and was fascinated by the translation process between our tour guide and the Buddhist monk, who explained to us in great detail what the process of meditation was all about, before instructing us how to breathe and chant.
Unfortunately, I can’t say I mastered the meditation process- not that I was expecting to, after one session. It didn’t take long for me to be distracted by the noises in the environment- chirping birds, pounding hammers, vibrating mobiles, barking dogs, whirring fans. Instead of letting go of my thoughts, a running commentary relating to these sounds started up inside my head. It actually reminded me of times in the classroom, where I’d tell my students they were to work silently for a period of time. For the first few minutes, they would indeed be quieter than mice, but then someone would drop a pencil, or move their chair, or whisper to their partner, and gradually, noise would fill the air once more. At one point, I even felt like a little kid myself when I opened my eyes to survey the room, before quickly closing them again in case the monk were to catch me out.
Although I doubt I’ll ever reach a stage of enlightenment myself, I admire those who are able to dedicate themselves to the meditation process, and practice it daily in this busy, hyped-up world we live in. The Buddhist monk mentioned that meditation should bring us closer to nature, which made me think about hiking. This is how I like to get in touch with the natural world, how I disconnect from the complexities of everyday life, how I live in the moment and appreciate simplicity. I realised that perhaps meditation can come in different guises, and for me, hiking is it.
If one can’t find peace, happiness and bliss through meditation, then it can surely be experienced by patting a playful puppy, which is what we did after we descended back into the courtyard once our session had concluded and found this adorable furbaby bounding around. The pup brought a smile to everyone’s face and was the perfect end to our visit.
Back at our beachside hotel, we had an hour and a half until checkout, and then another two and a half hours before the bus would leave for Colombo. Only six of us (out of 15) were planning to take the final bus ride, including me. Some of the group wanted to spend the whole afternoon in Ahungalla and decided to catch a minivan back to Colombo at night, while others were going to spend additional nights at the hotel, or surrounding beach hotels. It meant that when 2.30pm rolled around, it was time to say goodbye to all the people we’d created memories with over the last week. There was a final group photo before the bus, looking far emptier than usual, departed on the three hour journey to Sri Lanka’s capital city.
For the most part, the road followed the coastline, and we were treated to a sparkling view of the Indian Ocean, with the afternoon sunlight striking the water to create an illusion of a thousand glittering jewels dancing on the surface of the sea. There was no denying we were headed into a big city, as the traffic steadily began to increase, and for the first time, I noticed speed limit signs and traffic lights. Not that road rules seemed to count for much. The bus came to a sudden jarring stop many times, and not for the first time in my travels around Asia, I wondered about the wear and tear of brake pads. Surely, they need to be replaced far more frequently.
As we neared the CBD, buildings and billboards seemed to spring up all around us. The message on one billboard made me smile- if you never chase your dreams, you’ll never catch them. I typed the quote into the memo list on my phone. Another billboard made me turn my head so sharply that I almost gave myself whiplash. At first, I wondered if I was seeing things but no, there was a billboard advertising ECU, the university I’d attended in Perth. There were many other adverts which caught my eye- a brand of fruit juices labelled SMAK, which is coincidentally the Polish word for taste; a stage play called Bogan, which made me wonder if any Aussies were part of the cast; and illustrated signs for ‘super fresh chikan’. The misspelling of ‘chicken’ made me doubt, somewhat, just how ‘super fresh’ the poultry would be.
On some streets, there were temples, mosques, and churches all within a stone’s throw of each other, and everyone seemed to be peacefully co-existing with one another. I observed as one man stood in the middle of a footpath with his head bowed before a large, domed statue of the Virgin Mary, and wondered what he may be praying about. We passed a row of high-rise beach hotels that would not have looked out of place on the Gold Coast, before leaving the ocean behind for the inner city CBD. Here, the skyline denoted a level of wealth that seemed at odds with the infrastructure I’d seen elsewhere in the country. Another turn led us down a street of old, colonial style buildings, where I noticed a tourist standing on a corner trying to take photos and fend off a tuk-tuk driver at the same time. There were police officers directing traffic now, with some signalling from horses in order to be seen.
Our bus ride ended with a bang- literally- when, only two minutes from our hotel, a small, red car crashed into our bus. It was not a serious accident, in fact, our bus driver was not immediately aware of the incident, but although we’d barely felt the impact, there was an ugly red mark along the left side of the bus, as well as some small dents. The red car had fared much worse- its front bumper was pretty much hanging off. Once the driver became aware of what had happened, he slowed the bus, which led to us being subjected to many furious prolonged beeps, as we were in the middle of a busy bus lane and it was no easy task to find a space to pull over. The driver was understandably upset, and we all felt mighty sorry for him, as he had done such an excellent job of driving us safely around for the past week, only for this to happen in the final moments of the tour. Our tour guide explained that despite the minor damage, the bus would have to be taken in for repairs and it would cost a lot of money. We hoped it wouldn’t reflect badly on our driver. As he exchanged details with the driver of the red car, who had been at fault, our tour guide decided we might as well walk to our hotel, and led us through the crowded street to the Zmax Fairway, our hotel for the night.
One minute, we were in the throng of peak hour and the next, we had walked down an alley which could’ve belonged to a Harry Potter movie because, as if by some magic spell, it seemed to have hidden away all the hustle and bustle of the city. One could be forgiven for thinking they’d suddenly stepped into Europe, but overall it felt odd, because you were acutely aware that only a hundred metres away, the chaos of Colombo ruled supreme.
With the unfortunate ending to our bus ride, I never got the chance to thank our driver, and, after recommending a restaurant for dinner in the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, I never saw my tour guide again, and didn’t get a chance to properly thank him for all his hard work either. And so my Sri Lanka Express tour ended, in a rather disjointed way. The threads of fate which had brought us all together were now unwinding in order to set us all back on our separate paths once more. The group part of my trip was now over. The solo chapter of my adventures around Sri Lanka was about to begin.