We Were Here: A photographic essay

We Were Here: A photographic essay

 

We reach Sigiriya and there are signs everywhere warning us of hornets. Each sign shows scared, cartoon-like men racing away from the finger print of hornet wings.

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This impending sting attack has us on our toes and every buzz sends a tingle up my spine and adds an extra jaunt to my step. We needed it too, because we have 750 steps to climb to make it to the top. I don’t necessarily have a fear of heights. I have a fear of falling from rickety things or open ledges. A fair amount of these steps are screwed into the side of the rock and spiraling up the cliff face, trapping us in with a metal cage around the outside.

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We were here.

The Sigiriya Frescoes, around 7 painted ladies, bare chested and pinching flowers between their fingers adorn the protected wall on the side of the giant rock. These murals have survived 1500 years and display only a small sampling of the supposedly 500 wives the King Kasyapa kept in his harem. I don’t know if any of you watched Big Love but juggling 3 wives was hard enough for Bill Paxton’s character. I guess if your water palace is on top of a 660 foot rock with a 114 foot statue of a lion as an entrance, 500 wives doesn’t phase you. The women were other-worldly and slightly alien in their green hue. Their full-orange breasts reminding us there must have only been one fashion style for the wife of a king on an island that reaches 86 degrees at the height of the summer (#naked).

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We were here.

Now, the war may have kept tourists out of the country for the last 30 years, but this wasn’t always the case. The mirror wall has graffiti from tourists dating back to the 9th century. We weren’t the first ones peeping these lady paintings nor the first ones to be marking up walls with our thoughts. At least in the past, the entries were a lot more poetic than “Nicole 4 Eva” but that’s not to say there wasn’t the 11th century’s Sinhalese version of “We were here” either. Some phrases are as old as time and forever applicable.

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And then there were the paws. Oh the lovely ginormous paws.

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Ruins are fantastic. I love being able to imagine what something looked like from the past, but even more so I like seeing the real thing. I’m glad the paws are there, but I’m not going to lie…I really wish the full lion still existed. It would be like one of the grand entrances from Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones when you see the Braavosi statue standing over the waterway. I want that. I want that in real life. I suppose these paws are the closest thing to that. At least in the shadow of their claws, you can feel the presence of the full statue, the magnitude of it’s size and the awe it would have struck in visitors to the fortress.

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I felt it even more so when trying to descend the stairs that were no better than a loose ladder and kept seeing myself plummeting into the lion’s grip like a cat toy being batted from paw to paw.

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We were here.

And then it was over. We took our pictures. Made peace signs in front of the paws like the Japanese tourists in front of us.

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© Michael Goode

Snapped shots of the painted ladies and shots of other people taking shots.

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We snacked at the top of the fortress and looked out over the water gardens below, gazing on the manicured lanes and the giant Buddha statues.

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We made our way down the 750 steps and out past the ancient rock walkways strewn with yellow petals.

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We reminisced about the time we spent looking at carvings of elephants at the Isurumuniya Temple in Anuradhapura.

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We pondered whether or not the bodhi tree was really grafted from the tree Buddha found enlightenment under and whether or not Buddha’s tooth was really being housed in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy.

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We stood in the chilled caves of Dambulla and crooked our necks at the ceiling, covered with ancient paintings to rival the Sistine Chapel.

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We ate as many rotis we could get our hands on at the Agricultural Market and rode on the back of an elephant.

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And then…

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© Michael Goode

We were gone.

I have yet to read it but if I were to go back to Sri Lanka, I would grab Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje as my beach/train read.

Last Jellyfish Standing

Last Jellyfish Standing

“Trinco,” my brother said, “short for Trincomalee Beach, the newest tourist development in the country.” There was a reason for this. It was also home of the government’s military site that customarily battled the Tamil Tiger’s until their rebellion was put down only five short years before we planned to set foot in the area and also one of the locations hit heavily by the 2004 tsunami.

I was visiting my brother during his three month internship with the agricultural department in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon. We had already hit all the requisite tourist spots during his time off including Sigiriya Rock, Dambulla Caves and a number of white domed Stupas. His one request was that we make our way to the east and see Trinco, the only beach town he had yet to visit during his stay.

The problem was, no matter how often we looked online, it seemed there were no rooms available. We decided to throw caution to the wind and have our driver take us out there and find a room the old fashion way, by showing up and asking like Mary and Joseph, only, you know, without the birth of a messiah or being a couple, yuck!

Once we got there, we instantly knew why we couldn’t find a room. There were only four hotels total, in the whole beach town. No hostels and no rooms. We stopped at each one begging for a place to stay. We had come this far. We had a taxi to pay, we weren’t going to leave.

Trinco was the last place being developed with the new tourist boom and the rumors were it would be the next Cancun in a couple of years. We wanted to see it before that happened. We wanted the cred to say we were there first.

But what was this cred worth. I didn’t know anything about the civil war that tore Sri Lanka up for over 30 years before I set foot in the country (I’m not very good at doing my historical research ahead of time). This ignorance didn’t bode well for traveling to a destination where we discovered that the military still held customary drills, of which we could hear the echoes of down the beach at night. I also wasn’t aware the tsunami had hit Sri Lanka so hard, only hearing about the devastation in Thailand because of mass media coverage.

We finally found an available room at double the cost then my brother had wanted to spend, we dropped our meager belongings off, and hit the beach. Right away we could tell this wasn’t Cancun.

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Trincomalee was originally a fishing village and fishermen still line the beach, their small boats pulled up onto the sand, nets tossed over the side. One fisherman was trying to disentangle small silver fish before a flock of crows could descend on them and consume them completely.

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© Michael Goode, Post-production EG

We began to notice that each hotel was blocked by a barbed wire fence. With the drills in the distance we weren’t sure if this was to keep people out or keep us in. Still further, we paused between a gap in hotels and fisherman and noticed a gathering of small wooden crosses, some riddled with bullet holes, a reminder that the tsunami and the war took so many lives. Suddenly our hope of a relaxing beach vacation was looking a lot gloomier and making us reflective, which leads to philosophical questions. What is travel really for? Is it always to have a good time? To see only beautiful things? Should we always just be having fun? This seems unfair, unrealistic. Shouldn’t we also be aware of how we travel across this planet in actions, consequences? Shouldn’t we be seeing history as well and learning from it when we can?

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And perhaps Trincomalee wanted me to fully understand this lesson, that things can be easily lost, that everything isn’t pretty and perfect, that we travel to learn and sometimes to be so out of our element that we are truthfully fearful.

The next day my brother went out on a diving expedition with a local scuba club. He left at 1 pm and should have been back by no later than 4. I read a book, had a beer, got some sun. Four came and went. Five passed by. The sun started to set. I found myself so worked up with worry that I jumped out of my chair and took off down the beach without my camera or my shoes.

Right away something strange caught my eye. To not necessarily be crass, it looked like the beach was covered with hundreds of pink, used condoms. I peered down and realized they were small jellyfish. The beach was peppered with them. I almost wondered how I would even walk down the beach, there were that many. I tiptoed around the thousands of small venomous creatures, the sea’s lost soldiers, making my way towards the scuba club. But all was for naught, no boat, no Michael.

I made my way back and another hour passed. There were no restaurants in the area and you had to eat in the hotel by telling them what time you planned to dine. Our reservation was nearing and my brother was still not back. I was really worried now. Did his boat sink? Was he kidnapped by rebels still in hiding? My anxious brain spun out tons of scenarios, each more gruesome than the next. It didn’t help that I was reading Game of Thrones at the time.  There was nothing I could do but wait. I walked down the beach again and asked the divers where they could be. A man told me that they had to go further out than planned due to the jellyfish, those little pink jellyfish that the tide had now sucked back out to sea. The man believed they’d be back in about a half hour.

I walked by those tombstones, the barbed wire, the bullet holes one last time. I went to dinner, hoping that if I willed it, he would come. It was officially dark, close to 8 p.m. There was one light out towards the gate separating the hotel grounds from the beach. And then there was a bobbing, a dark shadow blocking the light and from this space my brother finally emerged. I was so relieved, and then as I always am with my brother, irrationally angry. Where was he? Why was he gone so long? What was he thinking?

He held up his arm to me and showed me the raised pink flesh. Jellyfish burns covered his elbows, wrists, bicep. I was so happy he was alive and back that this seemed comical to me now. It wasn’t so funny to him, but who couldn’t laugh when you’d been imagining beheadings all day and instead it was only the small stings from condom-shaped jellyfish.

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© Michael Goode

My brother was alive, while so many other souls whom I would never meet weren’t. So many fisherman, workers, Tamils and Sinhalese. All we could do was grab a glass of Arrack and pour some out for the lost citizens of Trincomalee.

Header image from Agarianna on MorgueFiles

Don’t F*ck with Monkeys

Don’t F*ck with Monkeys

Warning: Profane language

If there is one travel lesson you can learn from me, let it be this: Don’t fuck with monkeys! Simple and straight to the point. Don’t. Fuck. With. Monkeys! My brother has never learned this lesson…but then again, his dream in life was to grow up to be a Fishy Big One. Translation: an Orca whale. His plan to get there: Eat lots of fish food. He was five, cut him some slack. But either way, my brother has always thought he was an amateur Steve Irwin in training. His camera just one click shy of bringing him into communion with Mother Nature.

Oh, Michael.

Don’t fuck with monkeys!

I get it. They’re cute. They remind you of Curious George and you imagine yourself the imperialist in the yellow hat ready to snatch one home. They’re relatively small and covered in hair like your pet dog. But they can eat your face off if they want to and there’s nothing stopping them from trying.

I’ve been around a monkey or two in my time. There were the cute capuchins of Friends fame (#marcelthemonkey) in the mangroves of Costa Rica that looked like little old men waiting to give you a biscuit.

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Then there was the vervet monkeys of the Serengeti that snatched bananas and any other stray food from our lunches when we climbed from the vans for a snack while on safari.

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© Michael Goode

There were the “pet”Bonnet Macaques we fed scraps to outside the tea plantation in Coonoor.

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There was even the fearsome gaze of monkeys that lurked around villages in Rajasthan, slowly ambling alongside us as if daring us to cross some imaginary line where they would be allowed to attack. All these experiences have taught me one thing. Say it with me:

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I’m watching you.

Don’t fuck with monkeys!

My brother hadn’t learned it yet. We were in Sri Lanka visiting another holy sight, one of many on our two day drive through the Golden Triangle. We did not know that we were going to have a welcoming party. Over a hundred grey langur monkeys dotted the entrance to the holy stupa in Anuradhapura and scattered themselves like land mines along the path. There was no going around them and no avoiding them. The best thing we could do was tiptoe around them and let them do their thing, maybe taking a photo or two. The plan worked. We made it to the stupa, looked around, saw some prayer flags, contemplated whether or not the Buddha actually sat under this tree or not and headed out again. The plan back was the same. Avoid the monkeys as best you can and make for the car.

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Or this was the plan at least, until my brother forgot the number one rule. Say it again:

Don’t fuck with monkeys!

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He might look cute here… ©Michael Goode
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But think again. He’s ready to bite your motherfucking face off.  ©Michael Goode

My brother crept up to a pair of adolescents to get a few shots of the two interacting. As he got closer he realized one was holding onto a long stick. What did my brother think in this moment? If you said, “Don’t fuck with monkeys!” you would be wrong. If you said this to yourself in the same situation, you would be right, as long as you turned around and walked away. He did neither. My brother thought that the monkey might be brandishing the stick in a gesture of friendship, like an olive branch, and he slowly reached out towards it like E.T. pointing that shiny finger home. The monkey wasn’t having it.

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You want a picture of me touching my friend’s balls? Who do you think you are? Come back here! I was talking to you! COME BACK HERE! ©Michael Goode

The monkey jumped up on his hind legs, whipping that stick around like a lance and took off after my brother. I had already cleared a good distance between myself and the monkey as I remembered the number one rule and our original plan of action so I didn’t realize what was happening until I heard a loud yelp behind me, turned around and saw my brother running off down the path Roadrunner-style, only instead of a coyote he had a small monkey with a stick in his hand on his heels.

Luckily for my brother, after a quick 40 yard dash, the monkey got tired, or realized he wasn’t worth the trouble and sauntered off back to his clan of teenage monkey hoodlums, leaving my brother catching his breath and clutching his heart.

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At night, I imagine them lighting barrel fires and having initiation ceremonies. “Let’s see who can toss this trash can the farthest.”

“Did you see that? That monkey attacked me.” Was it an attack or did my brother just forget the number one rule? Don’t fuck with monkeys!

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Cats are okay Michael, stick to petting cats.

Let’s give a big thanks to Michael for his share of the monkey photos and for being a good sport.

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Our book suggestion this week: Curious George of course.