Friday, March 22 - Shopping and Security Checks

In the morning we decided to visit the Temple of the Tooth, the holiest place in Sri Lanka to the Buddhist majority. It is reputed to contain a tooth of the Buddha himself, and many Lankans make a pilgrimage there.

The temple itself was beautiful, both outside and inside. In a typical example of tourist pricing, admission was free to Lankans but not to tourists. Katie, however, had a plan to get around this.

Outside the temple, at booths set up on the grounds, trays of picked flowers were for sale. We bought some Aurelius flowers for an offering to Lord Buddha, for 14 rupees (about 7 cents). We left our shoes at another booth, and went to the temple entrance.


The secret ticket into the temple.

When an attendant attempted to wave us aside to charge us admission, Katie scolded him in Sinhala, saying that we were here to make an offering to Buddha, how could he charge us to enter? He became very apologetic, as we went around to the side of the temple to a fountain in which we washed the flowers. The attendant was impressed that we knew of the fountain, and was glad to let us in for free.


The fountain off to the side of the temple entrance.

Once inside the temple, the first thing visible was the lower level of the chamber of the tooth. The temple is not unlike a building within a building - there is an inner, two-level structure for the tooth itself, with the rest of the temple built around it.


The Temple of the Tooth. Behind the silver doors is what is reputed to be a tooth of Buddha himself.

We made our way around the temple, moving always in a clockwise direction, as was the custom. There were statues and other displays at stations along the way, and we paused and left a few flowers at each. If a pilgrim didn't have flowers of their own, they would touch the flowers and then clasp their hands in prayer, symbolically taking part in the offerings of others.

We did drop a few flowers onto the floor, and Katie warned us not to pick them back up - they were soiled at that point, and not suitable for an offering. Eventually, we made our way to a large table in front of the upper level of the inner chamber. It was covered with flowers, it being the most holy place to make an offering.

I was moved by the sincerity of the worshippers present there, many sitting along the wall in prayer, quietly meditating.

We moved on to the final station, a library containing very old scrolls containing the Buddha's teachings and commentaries by his followers. At this point, however, we had to leave - the temple was closing. It seems that the cricket team was coming! They were going pray in thanksgiving for their victory. (This gives you some idea of how important the cricket championship was - imagine closing the Vatican for a championship soccer team.)

I have since heard that the temple was badly damaged by a bombing a while ago, particularly the exterior. I was very sad to hear this, as it was a lovely place.

We had lunch at the White House, a restaurant that served both western and Lankan food, though we were cowardly and stuck with the more familiar meals.

We then split up, with Katie going off to meet the arriving Peace Corps volunteers, while we did some more shopping - this time for gems. Monica is an excellent haggler, and we walked off with several gemstones at prices that would have been impossible in the U.S. We'd spent most of our money, but it was all worth it.

In the late afternoon, we took a walk around the central lake of Kandy. (The city itself is in a valley with a long, narrow lake along the middle.) We took the picture below, which shows an all-too-typical bus ride in Sri Lanka:


Want a ride? Plenty of room!

When we got to the hotel in the evening, we checked out of our rooms. The plan was that we would hire someone to drive that night from Kandy to the airport at Negombo. This would cost 1500 rupees - about thirty dollars. In the meantime, we could stay with some Peace Corps volunteers.

Our plans began to go awry that evening. We were told that we should have reconfirmed our flight reservations beforehand, though we had done so before we ever left the U.S. When we called, we discovered that Royal Jordanian airlines would not reconfirm our reservations for the middle leg of the trip, from Amman, Jordan, to New York. Their policy was that we therefore would not be allowed to board the first leg, from Sri Lanka to Amman. The next flight was not scheduled until the following Saturday.

We were not thrilled at the prospect of another week in Sri Lanka, since we had spent almost all of the money we had brought. Katie and the other volunteers were very supportive, and contacted a Lankan friend who was a travel agent and pooled some money to help us out. Eventually, it was decided that we would go to the airport anyway and attempt to board the plane. If that failed, we could contact a Lankan travel agent and try to find another way home.

We called our parents to let them know there was a problem, and used them to arrange a call from my credit card company in the U.S. to our hotel, to try to arrange a higher credit limit in case I needed to purchase new tickets home. All in all, it was a stressful evening.

There was one humorous note, though - we received about three phone calls from my parents that evening, and they were routed from the front desk to our room at my request. The clerk would ask, "United States?" and then the call would be transferred to me. Unfortunately, since the Peace Corps meeting was there, we received a call from an official in the U.S. calling the director of the Peace Corps about a security clearance. Fortunately, he too was amused when we explained the situation.

Finally, we went to bed for a couple hours to rest up for our trip back to the coast. Our flight was hopefully at 5:30am, and due to security it was advisable to get there a few hours in advance, and the trip would take a couple hours as well, so we were to leave at 12:30am.