So Long, Ceylon

by Ant Stone on March 17, 2008

in Sri Lanka

Ding ding. Honk honk. My ears are being drilled with the blaring high notes of Hindi-pop. Ding ding, we stop. Rev rev, we’re off. Honk honk. We swerve through a checkpoint chicane, passed sandbag retreats holding tin camouflage roofs, we skim a stack of khaki patched tyres, it’s insides filled with soil and it’s top speckled with a circle of bright pink flowers. Ding ding. Honk honk. Rev rev. Passed camps of dull mud huts, with dusty yards and grey palm roofs. The victims: caught in the economic crossfire. Honk honk. We stop. Everybody off! Not I, the tourist. Not women, nor children. Rev rev, all aboard, we’re off. Honk honk. The driver’s face is framed by the reverberating rear view mirror, his expression reflecting the air of tension I’m breathing in. Honk honk. One side lays the ‘terrorist’. The other, the ‘terrorised’. Hindi-pop now screwing my eyes, my ears, my brain. The driver’s cockpit a rare theme of atheism, not Ganesh nor Lakshmi. If this bus should blow up, the tragedy would chew up these men in shirts and sarongs, these women in their elegant saris and neatly plaited hair, their uniformed children in once-white shirts and bright blue shorts, the bearded and bald, the baggy and brawn. From the gold and silver, the flecks of grey, blinking brown and pretty-in-pink we would be left with black. A sooty scar between the razor-wire, chicanes and military debris. But lest we not think of this, ding ding, we’re off, rev rev, honk honk.

Sri Lanka is at war. The Tamil Tigers versus the Government. David versus Goliath. The route from the Ancient City of Polonaruwa to the famed surfing beaches of Arugam Bay took us alongside a pocket of Tiger territory before drifting south along the east coast through a landscape of scrubland and security. We expected the bay to be quiet given the FCO’s no-go advice but Reb and I never imagined we’d be the only fools there. I found the experience a haunting one, not for the checkpoints or the warnings, but to see a string of hotels gathering dust and hearing the hollow hopes of our young hotelier was, to me, a reality of war I’d never begun to consider. Even the internet cafe had shut down. The gloomy skies hanging over the teal horseshoe bay, flicking storms on the fishermen and strays could not have been more apposite and when our en suite tap gurgled to life with murky brown water I knew ‘normality’ was faraway for these people who just three years previous took the full brunt of the tsunami. Five times a day the sea breeze carries the mosques call to prayer, from ‘prayer is better than sleep‘ to the Muslim’s belief that ‘there is no lord except Allah‘ goes the wail. I pray for these people – to all the gods – not only in Arugam Bay but across all of Ceylon (Sri Lanka’s former name) that this war is forgiving in it’s aftermath.

But blah blah blah to the outside, this is a travelogue after all so I’ll reserve my deepest thoughts on politics, religion and the price of rice (up from 28 to 80 rupees per kilo) for a desk job on Fleet Street or some other burger-flipping fate. It’s fair to say Arugam Bay didn’t deliver on it’s promises of bodacious international surf destination. But then again, war aside, we were there out of season. Days were filled with food for thought in the courtyard of a friend-of-our-hotels hotel (he had a loaded iPod and integrated sound system, a fridge packed with frosty beer and an aging stack of Time magazines.) Nights were filled with gin rummy and a cooking lesson in Sri Lankan cuisine – the island’s famous, lip-smacking ‘rice and curry’ turned out to be a delicate combination of coconut milk, curry leaves, coriander and cumin seeds, tomato, onion, garlic and tiny fiery green chilli’s. Fed and watered we retired to bed, a crumbling cabana where an ill-fitting mosquito net bragged how big it’s holes were. We had a few harsh words with a sneaky centipede, who took umbrage and called in the army of bedbugs, a squadron of moths, a quartet of cockroaches, a gaggle of geckos, a spider or two and a gallon of gnats. This was just the first night, the second of three the Conference of Critters installed a water feature in the room whereby the bed now soaked up the rainstorm outside. What to do?, I snuffled, ‘can’t do nothing!

From Arugam Bay we knew it was a small skip to a place to rehabilitate, to truly relax. Ella, the hilltop station village which I’ve covered in a previous post holds a rare gem in the travelling world. A guesthouse where ‘home from home’ comes with sofas, soft sheets and drawers full of shiny round discs. During the three days at Ella’s Highest Inn we proved to Karen (one half of the Ozzy ownership) and Ohoh (the puppy) that we really were ‘here to put our feet up and watch movies!‘ Fourteen of them. We couldn’t stop. After each one finished, a bright blue screen displaying JVC started to translate as ‘go on, stick another one in…‘ so we did, over and over and over again! If it wasn’t for the fact that we were due to leave the island in two days time, I’m pretty sure we’d still be there; beer in hand, Ohoh in lap. But leave we did, square-eyed and fully refreshed we boarded the night-slog-train towards Negombo (though unfortunately the night was spent slumped awkwardly upright in seating class as to our surprise the sleepers had all sold out!) Negombo is little more than an urban alliance to Sri Lanka’s international airport. It does however, have a beach, on which I left Reb for the day as I returned for one last stab at Ceylon’s curious capital, Colombo.

By default (I got lost) I’d ended up going by train instead of as intended by way of local bus. The carriage was laid out like your typical tube or subway car and a little over halfway there I found myself gripping the handrail and cursing a woman trying to rudely force herself passed me at a station, just ‘please’ would of done or an acknowledgment that I existed, none were forthcoming so I stubbornly rooted myself with an expression of nonchalance. Then another lady tries, and then a young guy, then the row of people sat on the benches started to stand up. But this wasn’t Colombo, why was it so popular? The surge became so strong that I soon found I’d leaped up onto the bench seat and in doing so released a current of passengers, as if I was an obtrusive dam – I was indeed a stubborn foreign object. In the distance I heard a scream, then next to me a woman made it a duet. People disembarking the train now used both sides of the carriage, both onto the platform and the parallel track. More screams. More pushing. I looked out of the train car window to see similar scenes happening from the adjoining cars, and they were running, all running. Next thing I knew – seemingly the Captain of the Carriage, as I was the last one out – I was leaping five feet down onto the battered track and then clambering up and onto the opposing platform while all the time marveling at the crowds. Stood there, alone, I felt like a bull drawn into the bullring, a raucous crowd was reaching fever pitch and I didn’t know where to turn until a matador appeared and speared me with a smile and a suggestion that we might step away as ‘there could be a bomb‘. All this happened in a trippy, thirty seconds.

The day in Colombo was an anticlimax after the journey inwards, but I like the city, for many reasons. It has the nature of a loyal friend. Modern glass and steel prongs pierce the skyline while colonial buildings (remember Sri Lanka was ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch and British) give an injection of charm that never fails to appeal. Alongside those foreign facades you might find homegrown buildings by local architect Geoffrey Bawa whose known for making his pieces an extension of the environment in which they’re built. My aim that day was just to wander and I found pleasure in minor tasks. Incidentally, lunch was courtesy of the young Sinhalese guy who felt incredibly guilty about leaving me on that train despite having been right next to me – though I’d held no bad feeling towards him, nor anyone. If anyone should feel guilty, it’s me for having a flight out.

And so it is, my time in Sri Lanka rolled to an end. Two months immersed in a nation that has the ability to stroke your cheek and smack your arse in the same move. An island whose cuisine is as flavorsome as the chef and whose history is richer than most men. The coast will paint your torso red, the Hill Country will sooth you, the Ancient Cities bore you and the politics abhorrer you. Sri Lanka is so much to so many, and even with the echoes of war filtering through the tea plantations, I found peace. There are times when you need caution, times when you need patience, understanding and compassion with a people who are dignified, proud and progressive. Compensation for the fearful bus journeys (courtesy of fearless bus drivers), are the complimentary views you’re given as distraction. An island where there’s something for everyone, yet not enough for some. An island whose heart is in the right place, but whose head is aching. So now, for me, it’s back to southern India. A country I gladly left two months ago and one I’m now determined to broker peace with. So long, Ceylon. Honk honk. Rev rev, I’m off!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Stacy March 18, 2008 at 9:58 pm

Hey Ant – Thanks for the comment. Sri Lanka is bittersweet for me (I did struggle with making a decision) but I have to say I’m looking forward to spending more time in SE Asia. There’s so much to do and see.

I’ll get to Sri Lanka some day….

Less than three weeks until I’m off!


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