This is what they missed on the rush to the top…

In the rush of life it's easy to lose sight of what's truly important. Join us on this pilgrimage to the Sri Lankan peak of Sri Pada, where we discover some very valuable life lessons whilst stuck in one of the world's longest queues.

Before climbing the 5,500 stairs to the Sri Lankan peak of Sri Pada I had no idea what to expect (apart from sore legs upon my return). I left amazed by the mindfulness of local pilgrims, sadly ashamed by the unenlightened behaviour of many Western visitors and incredibly grateful for the four hours I spent standing in a queue.

A pilgrimage site of special significance, Sri Pada is said to be the last place Buddha stepped before ascending to Nirvana. On Poya (holy) days, thousands of people choose to make this somewhat gruelling pilgrimage, with many hoping to reach the tiny temple on top in time for sunrise. Surprisingly, it is not just the young and fit who choose to scale the 2,243 metre peak. Beginning our walk at around 2.00 am, my wife and I were astonished to be amongst a crowd filled with small children, fathers carrying babies and frail grandmothers whose quiet determination somehow kept their creaking joints moving onwards and upwards.

Joining the joyous throng of locals were many Western tourists. Unlike the locals, who were often sporting bare feet or flip flops, most of the foreigners were exceptionally well kitted out, wearing serious looking walking boots, shiny North Face jackets and Bear Grylls survivor pants. Many had accessorised this adventure couture with carbon fibre hiking poles, deer-startling head torches and massive SLR cameras which were slung around their necks like oversized gold medals.

From the base of Sri Pada a long, winding path stretches steadily skywards and at night it’s difficult to fathom where the mountain ends and the stars begin. After three hours of steady walking we approached the upper part of the mountain. Here the trail began to narrow and with the temple only able to accommodate a limited number of people, a long queue had formed. The right-hand side of the path was reserved for people going up. The left was reserved for people coming back down.

Sadly, upon reaching this point, most of the Westerners decided queueing wasn’t for them. One after the other, they ducked under the centre railing and barged their way up on the left. Impatient to conquer the mountain and grab the perfect sunrise selfie, the privileged procession waltzed past all the small children, all the fathers carrying babies and all the grandmothers with the wonky knees. Apparently, their holiday happy snaps were more important than the spiritual devotion of the thousands who were patiently waiting their turn.

Standing amidst the locals on the right, I was amazed to witness how little hostility there was to these brazen foreign queue jumpers. While it didn’t seem to be getting to the Sri Lankans, the sheer rudeness was certainly getting to me. Whether it is at the deli counter of my local supermarket, the bar of my local pub or on the pilgrimage route of a far-flung tropical mountain, pushing in always seems the height of rudeness. I expected these people to show some basic manners, do the right thing and wait their bloody turn.

I debated whether to give the queue jumpers a loud telling off. For a while I fantasized about grabbing one of their ridiculous hiking poles and whacking them all the way back down the mountain in a manner which probably would not have been very mindful or Buddhist at all. Then I looked around at all the completely relaxed locals surrounding me and decided that when in Sri Lanka I should probably just do what the Sri Lankans do. Most seemed quite content to chill out, let it go and perhaps have karma do its thing.

As we slowly inched higher my wife and I began chatting with a young guy from Colombo, who had the unlikely name of Burke and the unlikely job of a trainee teppanyaki chef. Like most Sri Lankans he was incredibly well mannered and friendly. As well as sharing in conversation, Burke was soon sharing with us his grandmother’s sweet, spicy home-baked treats.

I realised then that the Sri Lankans really put us to shame when it comes to being hospitable to foreigners. When Australians aren’t ignoring tourists, we are generally telling them horrific stories about spiders or trying to convince them about the existence of drop bears. For some strange reason we just don’t often go about befriending them and lavishing them with delicious home-made food.

By sunrise the line had stopped moving completely and the high mountain air had a very cold bite. On the steps below us was a young family with a four-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy. At any moment I expected a tantrum – after all, these small children had been woken in the middle of the night, forced to climb 5000 stairs and then made to wait for hours in the cold, wrapped only in a thin blanket, with nowhere to move and nothing to do. Amazingly, like all the other beautifully behaved children on the mountain, these kids were quite relaxed and freakishly silent.

What was it that made these children so completely different to the Aussie ones who scream the local café down if their babycino isn’t quite frothy enough? Why weren’t they going ballistic without an iPad to play with?

Observing these two little kids, I realised they were being ultra-mindful. Simply sitting on a step held endless fascination. There were birds and bugs and butterflies to examine. There was a rising sun, a spectacular view and all sorts of really strange looking Western tourists to gawk at.

I made a mental note to try and be as mindful as a Sri Lankan four-year-old. Then I tried to recall all my other mental notes. I spent the next few minutes uncrumpling a series of sad sub-cranial post-its with dull commands such as… wash socks, …visit ATM, …check email. Finally, a brilliant blue kingfisher flashed by me, slapping me back to the present moment in rather dramatic style. Instantly I made a mental note to burn all the other mental notes, except the one about being as mindful as a Sri Lankan four-year-old.

By 6.30 am we began to see many of the queue-jumping tourists shamelessly making their way back down. No doubt their pictures from the top were already racking up likes from around the world. I guess they didn’t caption their images with notes explaining that they had selfishly pushed past thousands of locals, including scores of babies, children and white haired grandmas with wonky knees.

As much as I was annoyed by these people, I also felt strangely sorry for them. In their rush to get to the top they had missed the whole experience. While I was probably never going to draw a great deal of inspiration from a temple, I drew immense inspiration by the few hours I spent waiting patiently with a group of people who were so incredibly friendly, mindful and full of good humour.

When at 9.00 am we finally made it to the small, crowded temple at the peak it was somewhat of an anti-climax. But the whole point of a pilgrimage is not the destination but what you learn along the way.

A few of the lessons I learnt were:

  1. Get to the top without trampling over everyone else and you will undoubtedly earn far more respect.
  2. With a little mindfulness and the willingness to engage with the good people around you, spending four hours in a queue can actually be a holiday highlight.
  3. Anyone can get on just fine without an iPad, Bear Grylls survivor pants or most of the other junk we cling to.
  4. Sri Lankan kids are far better behaved than I ever was (even before Christmas when I knew Santa was watching)
  5. When you are surrounded by kindness and consideration, rude thoughtless behaviour appears even uglier.
  6. Even on a peaceful mountain pilgrimage it is possible to feel anger, especially when the values of others clash with your own.
  7. Burke’s grandma makes seriously good treats.
  8. I should really offer foreign visitors delicious cake when I’m trying to convince them about the existence of drop bears.
  9. My mental notes are far less fascinating than birds or the incredible natural beauty of a tropical mountain landscape.
  10. Those with the most to be thankful for are rarely those who show the most appreciation. Privilege without gratitude can easily lead to entitlement.