April 13th – The problem with Sri Lanka

It was good to be back on the coast. As I wrote my diary, I sat back on the beach with the Indian Ocean lapping at my feet and a cool Three Coins beer by my side. Ive always derived an immense satisfaction that is not exclusive to this particular journey, in having left somewhere from one direction and arriving back weeks later from the other; more so, if that journey has taken you to so much of a varied landscape and places. That island, roughly the same size as our Gaelic neighbor, certainly has much going for it. All it needs to do is drag itself out of the stupor that I feel it is in.

[Please remember that I was penning my thoughts in April 2008, only months before the long Sri Lankan civil war reached a bloody conclusion]

I hesitate to offer overview, being under no illusion that our interaction there was by no means a comprehensive experience. We have were only there three weeks and on a shoe-string budgeted three weeks at that. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that it’s been a claustrophobic experience, and in more ways than one. Geographically speaking, it isn’t a big place. To the south of the island lies the distinctly tourist-orientated beach-and-sand setup that was unmistakably beautiful, especially to our drizzle-soaked British eyes. But without too much more, it grows old fast. We had a distinct shortage of options in Galle and, sitting on the beach after a day of wandering the strip, I begun to have strong flashbacks. Further to the north, the island elevates up into the Hill Country, an area which I had absolutely no qualms over at all. That was a very well spent week in the clouds, and was an area I had no idea Sri Lanka could offer.

But head much further north than Dambulla, and you start to roll the dice a little more. Bombs on busses and at train stations made us both wary of the area as a whole, and much as I’d like to think that the two of us are the sort of guys that are willing to leave our misconceptions at the Arrivals lounge and prove the general perception of Tamil Sri Lanka wrong…Well, I don’t need to try an justify my healthy fear of armed insurgency, bombing of civilians, landmines and, in general, death. Reassurances that the Tigers were not targeting civilians were rendered null and void as far as I was concerned when explosive devices were popping up under commuter’s seats. This, I suppose, was only a closer-to-contact version of what had been keeping away the masses of fat, suntanned German couples and Dutch families that would normally be filling resorts like Hikkaduwa at that time of year. But there comes a point at which everyone draws the line, and I’m was not willing enough to take those risks.

Scary but simple message in train carriage in Negombo, Sri Lanka.

This image was painted on the walls of train carriages across Sri Lanka. Amongst a complicated conflict, a simple message.
-Negombo, Sri Lanka-

The red-shaded areas that I mentally found myself daubing over the map of the island isn’t strictly a north-south divide, as I had previously thought. While the Tamil capital of Jaffna, on the far northern peninsula offers something of a pinnacle of the divide, the areas many people told us weren’t particularly safe to visit follows more of a North-West to South-East diagonal line. The furthest reach of the south coast railway line continues a few stops beyond Galle to Matara and the Yala national park. Home to elephants, crocodiles and possibly a cheeky couple of big cats, this is where the Sinhalese national army almost shot down a tourist balloon last year, believing it to be hostile and dangerous. Of course, the likelihood of it happening again was slim, but it was more of a mental roadblock that created the type of frontiers that I felt I was trying to escape out there. Physically, there’s nothing at all stopping us. The same goes for up north. Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura were just more of a dicey proposition than outright dangerous. I was not fabricating the danger to myself; we had heard news of a handful of bombs being detonated around the island since we arrived, most of them in the capital. I begun to have sudden flashbacks of our brief encounter with the Sri Lankan PM’s convoy on our first day and the armed guards that hustled us into a yard and off the main road. The memory soon took on something of a new significance.

But beyond the bigger political problems, there was an overriding feel to all of our encounters with the locals there that very possibly had something to do with the situation the whole country was in at that point. On a more general level, we’d both had a lot of difficulty in overcoming the inevitable attempts to gain some money from us in one way or another whenever we chatted to locals. We found that there really was no way of knowing whether the conversation that tends to arise from the legendary Sri Lankan friendliness was genuine and spontaneous or simply a build-up to the same old routine we’d had so many times, be it a simple plea, an overcharged price or a petty scam.

An illustrative anecdote:

Yesterday, as Alec and I connected our bus from the train station with a bus to Negombo, we realized that we were actually back at the airport, and this was the bus yard that we had caught our first ride into Colombo from. Upon boarding the bus, the conductor charged us two hundred Rupees each, believing- not unreasonably- that we were rich, stupid and fresh off the plane, just like we had been when we had negotiated for our tickets with the drunk boy in the same yard. We both found this instantly amusing because we know full well this was roughly ten times what we should be paying for a short bus ride, and made this clear to him.

‘We have been in Sri Lanka for three weeks and we know how much this bus should cost. Tell us the real price.’

‘Okay, okay my friend’, he said, with a nervous smile and a handshake, ‘one hundred.’

‘No, the REAL price.’

He squirmed and the smile vanished.

‘Seventeen.’

 I realize this is a slightly unfair point to dwell on due to the fact that a bus conductor wasn’t trying to befriend us. However, I felt a growing cynicism with almost all the encounters that might occur in the course of a day in Sri Lanka, and disillusionment with many of our experiences as we looked back on them. Colombo seemed to be full of rickshaw drivers and characters attempting to take us for a ride and I’m still gutted that Nalin scammed us. The endless groups of kids that I haven’t even bothered to write about that swarm around you on sight demanding pens and money and ‘bon-bons’ can become as much of a irritation as flies on a hot day. As it grows more tiresome and tedious having to be constantly on your guard, the easy thing to do is to try not to talk to any locals. And this is what I desperately wanted to avoid.

But is meeting the locals of your destination not half the experience?

True, it is. But there I must stop myself before the heights of my selfish moaning become too embarrassing to commit to type, and take several large steps backwards and view the bigger picture. The ‘stupor’ that I describe Sri Lanka as being in the grip of is something of a more profound despondency. The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 destroyed much of the infrastructure, towns and lives all along the coast and confined many people (just like Nalin) to ‘temporary settlement camps’ on the outskirts of the cities. Four years later, the beachfront restaurants that have received renewed European investment have been rebuilt directly over the ruins, but the tourists had not returned and the victims still live in tents.

The tourists largely stayed away too, not through fear of another tsunami, but because the terrorist bombings that were making the news in western homes were putting people off. Despite having discovered the scale and nature of the conflict involved, I couldn’t really blame them. I was a young male, there on my own devices and responsible and accountable to no-one but me, so the decision to come was a calculated risk I was happy with. But to the average family wanting two weeks in the sun, why come to a country about which you only receive news of armed insurgency, when India is cheaper to get to, Thailand is minimum hassle and the Azores isn’t even outside the Euro zone? I desperately hope that I will remember this country for its beautiful scenery, its beautiful girls and its beautiful food, and not for its incessant scheming. I desperately hope that the future holds better things for this country than this.

Sunset over Negombo, Sri Lanka

-Negombo, Sri Lanka-

 ***

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