When I first arrived in Sri Lanka, life was an endless stream of perfect green waves, new smiles, coconuts and tropical fruit.
I was living on the ocean and surfing at least twice a day. My friends all consisted of surfers from every corner of the globe. We gathered together with our mutual love for the ocean and without realizing it, formed a bubble where we could have been anywhere in the world that had a beach.
After a few weeks of the excitement of a new place, something in me began to shift and I realized, as much as I played with the kids on the street and chatted with the locals in the village where I lived, I felt I had not really gotten to know the real Sri Lanka, so shut off I had become in the circle of travellers with the comfort of air conditioning and the ease of being able to speak English with everyone around me.
I decided that it was time for a change, and when the full moon rose I packed my bags. It was time to head to the mountains and time to immerse myself in the culture of Sri Lanka.
The morning after the full moon I set off with an energetic French guy called Max. We had met a few days earlier and got to talking about how we were both craving some solitude and adventure. When we realised we wanted to travel in a similar way we decided to set off together for the first couple of days.
So early in the morning we walked along the seaside road. Our destination was the town of Ella, up in the mountains, surrounded by tea plantations. The way there was by bus, around a five-hour journey, but it was adventure we craved and so we decided in the early morning light to stick our thumbs out and see how far we could get just hitching a ride.
Hitchhiking is still a fairly new concept to the Sri Lankans most people didn’t understand what we were trying to do, but as the day went on it got easier and easier to convince people to let us ride in the back of their trucks, tractor or the occasional car.
The feeling of sitting in the back tray of a truck with nothing but sky and mountains surrounding you is near indescribable. On the road I felt a freedom I had not felt in so long and there was grin spread permanently across my face.
Being out on the road felt like home. At every new stop Max and I would consult the map, each time there was a quicker road to get where we were going and each time we choose the longer route. Instead of 5 hours, our journey took us two days that felt more like weeks.
Taking the long way meant getting to experience a side of this beautiful country that otherwise would not be seen.
Cruising through tiny villages that hardly ever saw westerners, watching them laugh at us with our backpacks lounging in the back of trucks and tractor tailors on top of tea bags and piles of wood.
There was such a beautiful openness and honesty to the people we met and shared rides with - a willingness to connect, and it was that connection with their undisturbed culture that I was craving.
We met farmers and workers, a furniture salesmen, a tea plantation owner, so passionate about keeping good tea in Sri Lanka, a government/mafia man whom we stopped with for an hour to drink coconuts while he showed us pictures of himself at his office and drove us to see the billboard with his face plastered upon it.
We got turned away by a monk for a place to sleep and so continued on into the night, making friends with some men in a town who lead us to the creepiest hotel I’ve ever spent the night in.
There is really nothing quite like heading into the unknown and seeing where the wind (or some crazy Sri Lankans) will take you.
After two days on the road we finally arrived in Ella, a beautiful small town in the mountains. Ella was alive with activity and tourists all clambering about to see the many natural wonders this village and its surroundings had to offer. It was strange to see other westerners because although we had only been hitching for two days, the experiences we had shared and the people we had met off the beaten track made our time on the road feel like weeks. We took a walk along the train tracks to a small waterfall but upon seeing the lines of tourists heading upward we decided instead to hide away, sitting on a rock and reading and sleeping in the sun, enjoying simply being.
The next morning Max and I went our separate ways, he to Kandy to meditate in silence for 10 days and myself to take the pilgrimage to Adams Peak.
I opted for the train this time. I refused the second class which was filled with a Swedish school group and opted to sit instead in the quickly filling third class, I was not yet ready to give back into the comforts of my first world life. Here in third I made friends with a man who had served 30 years in the army, ate food from the locals and had a young girl fall asleep on my shoulder. It made me feel like a part of things once again.
On arrival to Dalhousie, the tiny village at the base of the climb I realised I had no plan and only the equivalent of $7 Australian dollars as all the ATMs had been out along the way (a regular occurrence here). Getting off the bus and looking around I made eye contact with a guy who had been on the same train as me.
Without even asking each others names we began to bargain for a room together, for the hike was not to start until 2am. Finally we found one, splitting costs and him buying me dinner as I had to embarrassingly explain I had no money left. The room was awful, but I managed a few hours sleep tucked underneath my sarong to hide from the thousands of mosquitoes that swarmed around.
Before I knew it alarms went off and it was time to begin the hike. I put on every layer of clothing I had, for up in the mountains the temperature dropped dramatically.
The climb was one of the strangest things I have experienced. A supposedly spiritual hike to the temple at the top of the mountain, the place where is was said Adam first set foot in this world, was filled with stalls peddling toys and children’s posters to mini Buddha figurines and the worst food I had experienced in my whole time on this island. It was like a strange side show alley full with hundreds and hundreds of Sri Lankan’s and westerners. Stuck like sardines as we got closer to the top with everyone pushing together tighter and tighter in a race to reach the peak before the sunrise.
It was possibly one of the most physically challenging things I had endured since I don’t know when. Half way up I was overcome with altitude sickness. Swaying, almost vomiting. I felt like there was no way I could go any further and then I saw mothers with babies, 90 year old woman and men all slowly making their way up with what seemed like ease and I was humbled.
I continued one foot after the other and the higher I got it became slowly easier.
As dawn broke I was only 100 meters from the peak, but with the queue so tight I decided to stop pushing up through it and stay on the steps squeezed in with some other travellers I had met along the way. As the sun begun to peep over the mountains in the distance I retreated into my own silent world and held my head up to the new day. It was a sight like no other that had the ability to make you forget the 4 hours spent climbing stair after stair. It had not been quite the spiritual experience I had hoped to have had, but it became more than that. I had been humbled and had finally allowed myself to show the struggle that journey had been.
As the sun rose fully into the sky I did not bother to try to make it to the very top. For me standing on that steep decline, looking out over the mountains and the mist that ran through them like rivers was enough. I had found myself again in a different way than I imagined, but in the way that I had really needed after all.
Summer Seekers - Hitching through Southern Sri Lanka by Tansie Bennetts @thisseafever
Tansie films and photographs with Sony A7's for both film and stills. Lens wise she use a Ziess 55mm prime and a 28mm Sony prime.
Join the #SummerSeekers squad and submit your #summerseekers travel, fashion or music content here