The sky is getting light and I’m going to miss the sunset. My friends have powered on ahead, one of them taking the steps two at a time. They all love to be physically active. I do not.
I can feel my cotton shirt sticking to me with sweat. My lungs are aching and I want to stop. But I want to see the sunrise from the top of Pidurangala Rock. And I don’t want to see the looks of pity on my friends’ faces when they come back down to find me reading a book in the jeep. I don’t want to smile and say I decided to save my hiking energy for later in the day. It would be a lie we all have to pretend is true, even though the jiggle around my belly says otherwise.
We haven’t known each other that long. The four of us work for WUSC, a Canadian NGO in Sri Lanka and have met within the past two months. We’re on a weekend trip to Dambulla, seeing ancient historical sites. When we decided to go, I hadn’t counted on quite this much physical activity.
Hundreds of steps behind me and who knows how many to go. Iresha, our guide, waits patiently while yet again I stop on this never-ending staircase to catch my breath and let my heart slow before going on.
“Almost there,” she calls out. The steps are snaking along a huge rock face and I don’t believe her. A few minutes later we come to a plateau. There are half-built rooms under the rock and a large brick Buddha, partly covered in plaster.
Iresha tells me the rooms were once for monks to meditate, many years ago. The rooms have been there for about 2,000 years. The Buddha was partially destroyed by thieves looking for gems under the plaster; the bricks are part of a restoration.
My breathing feels less shallow as we walk along the flat ground. The view is stupendous. Lush Sri Lanka lays before me in the morning light, looking more like a painting than a real place.
But my friends are not here and we keep walking forward.
I’m a bit in awe of their commitment to physical activity. I hate going to the gym. Exercise for exercise’s sake doesn’t do much for me and the gym makes me feel self-conscious.
I’m always impressed by people who just assume that being active is a normal part of life, because it’s never been a part of mine. If I’ve done active things, it’s always been with ulterior motives: being in the outdoors, commuting without paying for the bus, trying to look slimmer. The idea that it might just be fun is alien to me.
The flatness ends abruptly with boulders and large painted arrows. This isn’t the straight, clear path of the stairs. The arrows and trash left behind by tourists are the only suggestion people have hiked here before.
Iresha begins to climb between and over the boulders. I pause before following her. We are far up and I’m terrified of falling. My leg muscles are shaking and I’m off-balance from my camera bag. I don’t trust my body.
Two years ago I walked 10 kilometres a day. I had two jobs, lived downtown and rarely took the bus anywhere if I could save the $3. Then I moved away from the city core, cars came into my life and the pounds slipped on slowly. I noticed a tight pair of jeans, then shirt buttons popping open. I felt my thighs, my stomach and my bum undulating when I walked.
I still didn’t go to the gym though, because I was busy with my masters and it didn’t seem fun. This experience is completely different. I’m struggling, but I’m motivated. There’s a place to go and a view to see.
To get there, I have to trust these muscles I haven’t taken care of. The sky isn’t pink with dawn yet, so I lean forward, place my hands on the boulders and use my legs to propel myself over the rock. I will not fall, I will not break any bones (or my camera) and I will not plunge to my death. Today is not the day.
I am slow. I struggle. I crawl sometimes when I don’t trust my legs to hold me upright. Iresha waits for me.
Part of me feels I should be embarrassed that I’m taking 30 minutes longer than my companions to climb fewer than 200 metres. But I don’t have the strength to feel self-conscious. I dismiss my ego and concentrate on moving forward, because giving up would be a bigger humiliation than being slow.
The last rock to climb is the hardest. There are no shortcuts and my hands are slippery with sweat. I toss my camera bag up ahead of me, forcing myself to drag my body up and onto the ledge. Then I roll up off the ground and stand straight. I am here.
No one shames me for my slowness. The hiker who caught up behind us doesn’t complain that I slowed him down, even though I did. My friends smile to see me up here.
We sit and drink water, take photos and talk, and take in the beauty all around us. We see Sigiriya, the rock we’re going to climb tomorrow, with a fortress at the top.
There are too many clouds to see the sunrise. Everyone but me is disappointed. I suspect I would have missed it while I was struggling farther down. The thick clouds allow me to be part of this moment.
I stand back to take photos of my three companions, thinking maybe I understand why they love exercise. It’s not just about gorgeous scenery, although that’s nice. It’s about pushing yourself.
We may not have a love of the gym in common, but we are all the kind of people who will pick up and move to the other side of the world. We’re here to remind ourselves we’re more than who we are and what we do at home.
I may feel off-kilter and not up to my new friends’ level, when it comes to physical fitness. But I belong here. That’s as gratifying as the beautiful view, the adrenaline pulsing through me, and the soreness in my muscles.