10 October 2013
We are now travelling by the night train from Trincomalee to Habarana, hoping to catch up with some wild elephants. It’s their yearly get together called “The Gathering”.
So as I clickety-clack, groan, squeak and wheeze (the train, that is; not me!), I realise those sounds also describe the very grimy ceiling fan suspended in front of my face on the top bunk I’ve been assigned. This is First Class. In fact, if you scrape some of the grime off the red and rusted side of the train, it actually states it. Nothing but the best for this traveller.
My plush little private cabin could do with a high pressure hose, disinfectant, clean sheets and maybe a less OCD passenger. (I won’t even mention the dark room behind the door marked “Lavatory”.)
But I’m ahead of myself.
If you read my last blog, you will have realised that we survived the seven hour drive from the city of Jaffna in the far north, down through the island’s centre then across to the east coast and Trincomalee, or more precisely to Nilaveli.
The road was dusty and barren, with visible reminders of the civil war. We drove past many burnt out and bullet scarred houses, through numerous military checkpoints, past war memorials, and alongside kilometres of roadside barbed-wire fences with land mine warning signs.
As dusk began to fall we passed a land mine clearing team, dressed in rubber thongs and armed with … long sticks? Jobs are hard to get in this area.
Trincomalee, or Trinco to the locals, was completely cut off during the war, surrounded by both government forces and the Tamil Tigers.
It’s hard to travel in Sri Lanka and not form some sort of opinion about the ethnic struggle going on in the past – and at present.
I know. Here’s me (who when he picks up a paper either reads his horoscope, the aviation section or the comic strip first) about to get all political on you.
Like everyone, I had heard about the Tamil Tigers stealing boys from Tamil villages and turning them into emotionless fighting machines.
I have seen the documentary that outlines how the Sinhalese-majority Government trapped fleeing refugees and used the Red Cross hospitals as a target in the last days of the war.
However, it’s complicated, and has been so since Ceylon gained its independence from the British in the mid-twentieth century, after 450 years of colonial rule by the Portuguese, Dutch and English.
Boy, I’m getting all Che Guevara on you. Let me just step off my soap box … Aahh, back to our tropical beach holiday.
As it turns out, the East Coast is nothing like the South Coast of this island. For a start, the water is warmer, greener and saltier. Unfortunately, the beautiful beach at Nilaveli is also covered in thongs, cow dung, roaming dogs, plastic bottles, foam and other unidentified objects.
The plus side is it all seems to be washed up and I don’t encounter any flotsam and jetsam when I’m swimming.
But why was I swimming at all in these conditions?
Well, it was bloody hot, and it is the Indian Ocean; I’m Australian, and this is my ocean!
Thank god those thongs don’t make it as far as our shores.
One small point: barbed wire just doesn’t look right when you are on a palm-fringed beach, nor do sentry boxes, and machine guns just look plain ridiculous.
Our hotel was a newly-built stark white structure, built by an ex-pat Tamil man who has made his money in the UK.
We were at the hotel for a week, giving us enough time to visit various hot springs of religious significance, the largest Portuguese/ Dutch/ English fort in Sri Lanka, and one of the world’s largest natural harbours. Settle down Sydneysiders, I said “one of”!
This port played a strategic part for the Allies during the Second World War. The Trincomalee Commonwealth War cemetery was a moving sight. All those Australian, British, Indian, Dutch, New Zealand, Canadian and French soldiers and nurses laid to rest in a perfectly maintained fenced oasis of lush green lawn, roses and vincas (surrounded by the more familiar brown scrub and rubbish). The proud trustee and gardener is the second generation of his family to hold this honour. His father even met Princess Anne when she paid her respects to the fallen in the mid-90s; we were proudly shown the yellowed and well-thumbed laminated photo, signed courtesy of HRH.
We managed a trip to Pigeon Island, an island that is home to – yep, you guessed it – pigeons. Unfortunately for the pigeons, most were eaten by starving locals during the civil war (which is also the case for many of the hundreds of deer descended from two that some crazy Brit imported into Trinco two centuries ago).
Pigeon Island is a National Park located about a kilometre off the coast and home to spectacular coral and tropical fish. It was like an underwater set of “Finding Nemo”. We spent an hour snorkeling with the fishies, swimming over the Yves Klein Blue coral.
Well, the bits that the dynamite fisherman hadn’t got to.
Even my seventy-plus year old mother donned a mask and fins and rubbed noses with reef sharks.
One idyllic wander down Nilaveli Beach, marvelling at the ocean and trying not to notice the freshly washed up dead cat, a man came running out to us from the scrub.
Nothing uncommon, as the locals are always practising their English and/or wanting to chat about cricket.
This man, however, looked like a headhunter, carrying a very sharp-looking scythe. (Granted, he was wearing a (very stained) Ralph Lauren shirt.) Naturally, my first reaction was flight, but despite the war and tsunami we have never felt threatened or unsafe. This gentleman was well-spoken and just wanting to educate us – oh, and offer his tuk tuk services.
He informed us that prior to the war, a lot of Tamils had good government jobs and owned property, like the coconut grove he had just appeared from. Now no Tamils have jobs in the government, and for some, their property has been appropriated or is tied up in legal disputes with Sinhalese. His property has been in legal limbo waiting to go to court for years, and he cannot enter his property until there is some judgement on it.
Something we had noticed was that most of the several kilometre beach was unoccupied, or occupied by military bases or Sinhalese-owned hotels. He accused the manager of our hotel of asking for too much baksheesh for him to operate his tuk tuk from. Explains why all our tuk tuk drivers had either been Christian or the followers of Mohammed.
So next time you hear an Australian comment about economic refugees from Sri Lanka, imagine what their new future is like, having lost good jobs that they are mostly not getting back, and owning property that can’t be occupied.
Who let me back on my soap box?
Back to the holiday slide evening everyone!
After a week-long stay we got to know our hotel staff well. Raja, Julie, Kumar and that quiet lad; I never did learn how to pronounce his name. I mean, we ate almost every meal in their company, in the coconut-thatched roof restaurant with the sand between our toes, and candlelight when the power went off. Our hotel room was clean, large and bright. Which was a god-send, as I spent two days in that room losing those holiday kilos.
Next time Kumar, wash your bloody left hand before you touch my food.
So after seven days on a roller coaster of mixed emotions we are rocketing through the blackness on to our next destination, through war-ravaged jungle, home to monkeys, Tamil Tigers and elephants, onwards into the heart of darkness.