We had an hour until check out time. Giant was packing his bag with army precision, swiftly folding tops and placing them neatly in his bag. I was laying on the crumpled bed messaging a friend, and had managed to move my gear into a relatively ordered pile to sort through at some point. ‘I think we should go to Sigiriya’, the giant casually threw out there. I stopped messaging and turned to give him an exasperated look, ‘it just feels like such a hassle! Especially on the bus, and with our luggage. Where are we going to put it?’. We had been going back and forward all morning on whether we should visit Sigiriya, the ancient kingdom built on the top of a giant rock, on our way to Polonnaruwa. Our loose plan, decided last night, was to forget Sigiriya, and catch a bus from Kandy to a place called Dambulla then transfer to another bus to get to Polonnaruwa. Neither of us were particularly keen as the public buses looked like someone had been very successful at a game of human Tetris, however we figured it would be an experience, and it would also be cheap.
‘It looks awesome, and all the reviews say it is one of the best things to see in Sri Lanka’, giant delivered neutrally as he continued to pack. ‘I’ve seen a rock before’, I retorted with attitude, my irrational self coming out to play. The giant didn’t bite to my tone, ‘yes, but this rock is considered the 8th wonder of the world’. I don’t know why I kept resisting but I tried this on for an argument: ‘have you been to Ayers Rock?, the giant gives a confused shake of his head and I continued, ‘well if you haven’t even been to the biggest rock in your own country, why are you so interested in going to this rock?’. At the time I felt I’d made a pretty good argument. A completely rational and persuasive argument. The giant knew I was being unnecessarily contrary and took a shower. Whilst he was gone I realised how painful I was being for no apparent reason and decided to google the best way to get there.
‘Look, we can get a tuk tuk from Dambulla to Sigiriya return for about thirty bucks and it takes half an hour’, I said as I thrusted my phone screen in his face as soon as he walked out of the shower, water beads still dripping slightly from his beard. I needed him to know as quickly as possible that I was an adaptable and reasonable person. ‘We can get a tuk tuk from here to the bus station, then a bus to Dambulla, then a tuk tuk to Sigiriya and back, and a bus from Dambulla to Polonnaruwa’, I smiled at him, impressed with my deft organisational skills. ‘I think we should pay the money and get a transfer’, the giant replied, obviously too preoccupied with the logistics of the issue to offer me accolades for my quick turn around and research skills. I saw his point though. It does sound luxurious and easy compared to playing corners with a multitude of Sri Lankan commuters.
‘Do you have the number for that guy?’ the giant looked at me expectantly. I knew who he was talking about, the helpful cab driver called Wasaa who had picked us up at Kandy train station when we had arrived. He’d offered to take us to Polonnaruwa, stopping at all the sites, he’d even produced testimonials from fellow travellers. However, in a moment of haste to declutter my reminders I had unfortunately deleted Wasaa’s number earlier in the morning as I figured we were decided on the buses. I looked at the giant with an exaggerated pained look, ‘I’m sorry but I deleted it’, and then for dramatic effect I wailed, ‘Why did I have to delete my reminders this morning!’. However, it wasn’t that big of a deal as the hotel was able to organise one for us, and whilst we waited the thirty minutes for our driver to arrive we had a drink at the hotel’s rooftop bar, cheers-ing the success of our new plan.
Our driver’s name was Smile but it should have been Chuckle as after every sentence he would laugh in a smooth warm reverberation. He was definitely a happy guy. I imagined if you worked with him you’d get vaguely irritated by his unfailing happiness, and start to whisper to other colleagues at the water cooler, ‘what’s with Smile? Would that guy just fuck off with his mirth’. Being on holiday though we had no need for such hostility. Smile was very patriotic and was obsessed with us taking enough photos, ‘I’ll stop here and you take a photo. Take two photos’, he would say earnestly. We would pull over every few kilometres, sometimes simply instructed to take a photo. Or two photos. Other times we were told to look around at say a Hindu temple, or a Buddhist shrine. Eventually, as the day drifted into afternoon we had to put our foot down. ‘Do you want to stop at the herb garden?’ he asked. ‘No, I think we’ll be okay thanks, it’s very hot’, I replied trying to back up my response with solid evidence but he had an equally valid reply, ‘it’s not hot in the garden’, and then he laughed. I pinched the giant, and gave him a look that said ‘back me up’, and he took out his headphones and reiterated the thanks but no thanks.
Despite the fact it felt like we were never going to reach Sigiriya, and instead would be destined to spend the rest of our lives stopping every five minutes to take two photos on Smile’s Sri Lankan photography tour, by mid afternoon we finally arrived. There in front of us was a massive rock that eclipsed all else around. It looked like a jumbo sunburnt muffin that had risen too high in the oven, absorbing all other muffins in its path to form the one. Or possibly a red velvet cupcake without the delicious icing on top. My palms and feet started to lightly sprinkle with moisture. I don’t love heights. I’m not completely phobic but I reside on the periphery of manageable fear and grabbing people by their collars and screaming in their faces to give me valium. ‘How many stairs is it?’, I asked the giant. ‘I think it’s about 1200’, he replied grinning. I didn’t know what he was so happy about, who likes stairs? Oh I can’t wait to climb innumerable stairs, said no one ever. Well no one I want to hang out with anyway.
Despite my misgivings, we started our ascent up the spacious slippery stone steps. Our clothes dampened quickly as the oppressive heat encased our bodies like a tomb. After what felt like a million stairs but was really only 200 I felt like I might faint, and I pulled up a stone step to plonk myself down on, ‘I just need a few minutes giant, I’m wilting in this heat’. There was a family behind us, the dad in worn leather sandals, the mum in a traditional sari, and along for the ride their little boy of about five. I don’t want to sound judgemental but they looked pretty unprepared for walking up endless stairs. I thought to myself, if these people can do this, I can, and I continued on, step after step, my heart thudding into my chest like an oom-pah band, and my breath sounding like I was a pack a day smoker. Eventually we arrived at a large plateau, and I hurled myself towards a brick wall to lay my weary bottom, nausea pulsating through my limbs.
Oh, how I wished this was the peak. It really was nice enough. We were already incredibly high up, and most people would have said that right here the view was breathtaking. I held the stairs responsible for that. I considered whether I could give up now, and lay down for a quick nap whilst the giant completed the mission. However then I glimpsed the family that had been behind us, the mum leaning against the massive carved lion claw at the bottom of a set of stairs, her body slumped in exhaustion. She waved her hand in surrender at her husband and child in a ‘leave me, I’m not going to make it, you’ll have to go on without me’ kind of way, and as well as feeling validated for my apt assessment of the situation, I also felt a renewed sense of motivation. Nothing like being right to get the motor running.
As we were about to continue our pilgrimage, an epic background of mountains and sky surrounding us, a dark ominous cloud descended, like in a bible story… And god said there shall be snakes, and a swarm of locusts, and many many stairs to climb! ‘We better get going just in case it storms’ the sensible giant implored. He must have read a few bible stories in his time. Luckily the last several hundred stairs were metal and had a shorter, more manageable gait. I also had the help of giant power who held my bottom and pushed at times when I looked like I was waning. Giant express, choo choo! The final steps I didn’t even realise were the last ones, and as I crawled to the end of a section of stairs, feeling like an ancient Egyptian slave that had been whipped half to death as they pulled a cart full of boulders because they dared to steal an apple, I managed to gather my last remaining remnants of strength and lifted my weary head. Looking out at the undulating mountain ranges in the clouds, the burn in my thighs dissolved, and I inhaled a full lung’s worth of air, and thought to myself, now this is worth two photos.