I (Almost) Fell Into a Burnin’ Ring of Fire

Firewalking at the annual Munneswaram Festival in Sri Lanka

So, not to be a jerk or anything, but I’m pretty sure I did something on Sunday that you did not do.

After some sightseeing and shopping, Has, the World Vision staffer who is our guide and handler here, asked if we’d rather shop some more or swing by a Hindu temple to watch a ceremony that was taking place. The latter easily won out.

About an hour after her seemingly harmless question, we found ourselves in the middle of crushing throngs of thousands of people, watching men and boys walk across 1000-degree coals.

Being the only foreigners there, we very much stuck out. And, as a result, we were also afforded special access. Some generous police officer waved us inside the ropes, where we got to sit next to the families of all the men who were walking. At first, that seemed like a great idea. Once the ceremony actually started, it turned a bit crazy. As the crowds rushed in to the center and the police seemed suddenly absent, we held our ground as best we could.

We were at the Munneswaram Temple complex, which dates back 1,000 years. That temple is dedicated to Shiva, one of the three main deities in the Hindu trinity, known as the Transformer or the Destroyer. The temple’s main annual festival, the Munneswaram Festival, lasts for 28 days and includes an evening of firewalking, borrowed from the Timiti Festivals at other Hindu temples in this part of the world.

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The Synergies of Travel

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned to my friend, Tim, that I was going to Sri Lanka. “Oh,” he exclaimed, “One of my favorite authors is from Sri Lanka. You should read about Michael Ondaatje’s trip back there.” That day, I ordered Running in the Family.

Ondaatje, the Booker Prize-winning author of The English Patient, grew up mainly in Canada, but he has roots in Sri Lanka. In 1978, he traveled to what was then known as Ceylon, to revisit his childhood and his ancestry. Running in the Family, about that trip, was published in 1982.

I began reading it on the flight over here, and I had it under my arm as Shawn Smucker and I walked from our hotel, across the street to the beach. I looked up to notice a man walking on ropes, high above us in the palm trees, pouring a liquid from pots into a pot that he lowered by rope to the ground.

Our very gracious hotelier, Tommy, saw us looking up and explained to us that the man was collecting the sap of the palm flower, which is subsequently fermented and made into a drink called the palm toddy and also further distilled into arrack. He told us that he’d serve us a toddy before lunch and some arrack after dinner.

After that little education, I planted myself on a chair on the beach, and opened Ondaatje’s book, wherein, after a few pages, I came across the poem, “High Flowers,” which reads, in part,

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Welcome to Sri Lanka

These young dudes welcomed us to Sri Lanka today.

It’s been a long day of travel. I left Minneapolis just after mid-day on Thursday, and arrived at my destination on the west coast of Sri Lanka at the equivalent of 2am on Saturday in Minneapolis (11am here in Sri Lanka). The boys in the photo above gave us a nice welcome during our 2-hour van ride, but that was merely the final leg of a long journey.

From MSP, I flew to JFK, where I met the other members of the World Vision Bloggers Tour. They are, as you might guess, a wonderful and diverse group of people. We’ve already had some great conversations, about which I will post in coming days. From there we flew for 12+ hours in an A380, the largest airplane currently flying. We arrived in Dubai in time to hear the call to evening prayers as we waited in the line in passport control.

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Now THAT’S a Big Plane

In fact, it’s the world’s biggest plane.

I’m sitting at JFK, about to board a flight to Dubai, and then it’s on to Sri Lanka. I’ll be on the ground by Saturday morning, local time. I’ll be posting all next week about what I see and experience. I hope you’ll follow my posts and those of my fellow travelers. You can find us on facebook, and on twitter at #WVbloggers.