A Sri Lankan bus ride
The guesthouse in Dalhousie
The couple on Adam's Peak

I could see my breath under an inky sky when I left the inn at 3 am. Trail-lights illuminated the face of the 7,359 foot Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada), near Dalhousie, Sri Lanka. I was hiking to meet the sunrise.

My parents and I had travelled here from the northern town of Trincomalee. The trip by train and chicken-filled buses that went terrifyingly fast had taken us to this sacred place. Along with the pilgrims who make the spiritual journey to where Adam (Shiva, or Buddha) first touched earth, there are the others who are lured by the promise of a good hike. I’d read about Adam’s Peak, and I was determined to climb it, even though my parents couldn’t, to understand what drew thousands here. Something about it had sparked my curiosity – the size? The shape? The story? Maybe it was just the idea of being among the first to see a new sunrise.

Sri Pada is a huge foot-shaped green monolith, imposing and densely forested. Steps climb the side, and the path is dotted with small shacks made of corrugated metal. Locals live on the mountain, selling over-sweetened tea to people who decide to make the trek.

As I set off with friends, my eyes fixed on the lit path.There was a sense of anticipation filling the air. I didn’t want to break it. At the trailhead, a monk tied a white string around my wrist. It was a reminder of the sanctity of the mountain and a symbol of good luck. It felt strangely monumental, like I was setting off on a long journey and I might not find my way back.

The steps were steep, and I tripped over roots in the dark. My hands, outstretched, touched the chill slip-slide of leaves. Around me, people climbed silently. There were barefooted grandmothers clothed in white, who laboured over each step, and there were young backpackers with chest-mounted GoPros, who raced each other up the mountain.

When I was about two-thirds up the mountain, my ankle twisted underneath me. Luckily, I was near one of the tea-houses so I limped into the seating area and bought a cup of sweet black tea. I texted my dad, asking for help.

While I burned my tongue on the over-brewed tea, the rest of me was cold. I was missing the hike to the top, the chance to be the first to see the sunrise. The elderly couple who owned the shop watched me in concern, and the woman came out to speak to me in pantomime and Sinhala. Her face was tired, her hands expressive. She insisted I come inside, and installed me on the couch with a rough blanket. I was nervous, but she looked kind.

The woman and her husband lived in the one room hut, scented with curry spices. They owned two blankets, a bed, and a couch. The tourists that bought tea supplied their livelihood. Between them, they spoke about seven words of English. It was difficult to communicate – I was disappointed in my failure, and didn’t have the ability to tell them. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to return to Sri Lanka to summit Sri Pada.

They didn’t try to talk to me much, but they were welcoming and somehow my disappointment faded, replaced by acceptance of the different gift the day had given me.

I hope they’re still there, gently helping those who find them. Their act of kindness is something I’ve remembered for years. To me, it was warmer than the sunrise at the top of the mountain.

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