Stop and Take a Breath

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Today I got to hit the road, or more accurately the rails. I arrived at the train station in Colombo (with a pre-purchased ticket) about 20 minutes before my train was scheduled to depart and entered through the main gate onto a teaming series of platforms and the early morning rush of people going to, from, and through the capital. When I asked the gate keeper which track my train departed from, he waved his hand around in front of him - this wasn’t exactly the clarification I was looking for. I found a European tourist-looking couple sitting on a bench near the first platform. Hoping it would be this easy, I asked them where they were headed. Gratefully they were going in the same direction - north, and had the same train number. They seemed to think it would arrive on the first platform. We were joined on the bench by a young German backpacker, who was looking for the same train. We all sat staring at the platform, hoping and waiting. Finally, our train came in.

We boarded and the train headed out, making its way through the impoverished outskirts of Colombo, to the green of the country. At every stop (even in the middle of nowhere) men and women walked along the train offering snacks for sale. With the help of the six-year old Sri Lankan girl in the seat in front of me (who was practicing her English), we scored some little corn (or maybe chickpea?) cakes with chilis and onions for breakfast. I arrived in Andurhadapura five hours later well fed, and ready to explore the ancient city. 

Jetavanarama Dagoba

Jetavanarama Dagoba

Against my own better judgment (given the heat), but at the encouragement of my hotel’s front desk, I borrowed a bike and headed out. The city was the first capital of Sri Lanka and the ruins of temples and kingdoms are scattered around the small commercial center. I decided to stay to stay close to my very colonial (albeit slightly aged) hotel, in case the whole bike thing didn’t work out.  By the end of the day, I had only gotten to three or four places on my map and there were dozens according to the guidebook worth seeing! I was going to have to pedal faster tomorrow.

The next morning, I got out the bike again and headed farther afield to the ruins of the Abhayagiri Monastary built in 100 BC. Monastary sounds like a building or two, but it is 500 acres of land, that once was home to over 5000 monks. There were kitchens and residences, entrance halls and relic halls.  Even a water system that moved water from three nearby lakes, to the “Elephant Pond” – named, not for the animal, but because of its size – for drinking, bathing and sanitation. The stupa at the monastery was second in size only to the pyramids of Giza. How did I not know this existed? 

Elephant Pond, Abhayagiri Monastary

Elephant Pond, Abhayagiri Monastary

I started to feel overwhelmed, thinking I’m never going to see everything, and then I realized I didn’t have to. I looked around and besides a few people cleaning up leaves, I was alone. I had the forest and the ruins to myself.  I biked and wandered among the buildings imagining what the city must have looked like in its heyday and spent time with my feet hanging over the edge of the Elephant Pond marveling at the achievement. As the day wore on, and I got to a few bigger monuments, there were more people, and tour busses, and tuktuks, but I had those few hours of time to stop, take breath, and be awed by history (even if I didn’t see all of it).