I got a ton of rest on Saturday evening, despite my body being really confused. I took a short nap in the afternoon and then forced myself to join a group for dinner at the hotel. I managed to sleep almost the full night and woke up fairly refreshed.
On Sunday we were supposed to have just a short meeting and then a little sight-seeing. It was a for more time zone adaptation since our travel time was so long and since we didn’t arrive at our hotel until Saturday morning. We got a slow start. Everyone is still figuring everything out and Sri Lanka doesn’t move at the same pace as Los Angeles. We had internet connectivity issues until just before lunch, so while we waited on a fix I sat on a couch in the hotel restaurant and talked with Allison about our childhood faith and marriage.
The food is so different in this part of the world, walking through the market was a sensory experience. The smell was overpowering, mostly of dried fish sitting in heaping stacks. The sellers at the market were curious about us, calling out to our translator to ask about presence. I tried to smile and nod when I made eye contact. I did not want them to think that we were staring or intruding.
We had a quick and unexpected tour of a store where a man made traditional batik, and I thought that we were loading the van to go back to the hotel. Instead, we stopped at a large Hindu temple where they were having a ceremony that goes back thousands of years. Hundreds and hundred of people were gathered around this circle area. As our group approached, the crowd turned from what they were watching to stare at us. We stood out like giant white splotches on a beautiful vibrant painting.
The temple was behind, rising up probably three stories and painted pink and yellow and green in intricate design. When we finally moved through the crowd enough, we saw a dozen men stoking a pit of burning coals. I don’t want to misrepresent what the fire-walking ceremony was, I understood it to be keeping a vow with God. The men who run across the coals have promised something to God, about their health or their family or their business, and their sacrifice is to make the walk. They believe that the pact with God will keep their feet safe from burning.
We stood among the rest of the crowd waiting for the coals to get hot enough. Large and aggressive cows made their way through the people, clearing the way with their horns. I’ve spent plenty of time around cows in my life, but these were not lazy Oklahoma cows. These cows pushed, and made women shriek as they nudged. A man that we had seen miles down the road walking on nails arrived at the temple, having walked all that way on platforms with spikes poking into his feet.
I made eye contact with a baby about my sons age who was looking back at me from her momma’s hip. She was so beautiful, wide-eyed and bashful. I know she was probably curious about the color of my skin and hair, how different I look from what she normally knows. I played a universal game of peekaboo and she gave up a smile or two. When the few people standing between us parted, I saw that she had sores and scabs covering her arms and legs. Her face, her playful eyes had given no hint.
The uniformed policeman surrounding the fiery coals ushered our group into a better position to watch. It felt uncomfortable to be even further set apart like this, I just wanted to disappear and observe. But it was clear from the few people who approached us and spoke broken English, that this ritual was something they were proud of, that they wanted us to see clearly. This particular Hindu temple has spaces for Buddhists to worship, is even occasionally shared by Catholics. In remote areas, it is so interesting to me that places of worship can be shared in this way.
The crowd filled in a bit around us and we were ordered to sit down. My back was to a fence with a large empty pit behind me, and it was so crowded, and I had no context for what was happening, I felt a little anxious as the ceremony started and the collective mood shifted around us.
A large parade of the men who would be running across the fire emerged from the temple and there was chanting from the men, the family, even the little children. It was exciting, but, with almost no means to communicate and no real reference point, it was scary. We were so deep in the crowd, and the fence blocked any escape. I was standing between Shawn and Tony, and we exchanged nervous glances as the crescendo built.
Finally, in a great burst, men started running across the burning coals in two and threes. Some of the men were carrying children, presumably this was a part of their vow. They were mostly quiet as they ran, yelping along with the crowd before and after the crossing.
We watched for about ten minutes, and as the people got louder and rowdier, our group made an unspoken decision. We made sure we were all together, and our handler led us the long way out of the temple area.
My heart was pounding. It was the most foreign thing I’ve ever done. We were in a city, in a place of worship, but there was nothing familiar about it. We loaded into the vans, varying degrees of rattled. Some of us were simply quiet. When we got back to the hotel, I went straight to my room. I showered and fell into bed, skipping dinner. My entire body felt heavy from the experience.
Friends, we're having terrible internet connectivity problems. I'll post when I can, promise.
I'm honored to be part of the World Vision blogger team traveling to Sri Lanka. I'll be posting, tweeting, facebooking and Instagramming my way across the globe this week, I'd love it if you'd follow along. To find out more about the trip or child sponsorship through World Vision, please click here.
**all photos courtesy of Matthew Paul Turner