The other Sri Lanka

We left Dambulla on Friday morning and began our drive to Trincomalee on the east coast of Sir Lanka. I had hired a car and driver and the owner of the car sent his brother-in-law,who is from Trinco,to make sure we were able to pass all the ten check points. The civil war here has been going on for over twenty years. It is absolutely hopeless. The Tamils,who are about 15-20% of the population,have been at the mercy of the Singalese majority since the British left in the 1950’s. To complicate the situation there are two rebel groups,the tamil tigers(LTTE) and a splinter group that has broken from them,who refuse to come to a peace agreement with the SriLankan government. After we had left Habanara, I saw an immediate change in the landscape and living conditions of the people.

Its 105 km but it took us over three hours to reach Trincomalee. It is hard to distinguish between the SriLankan military and the police. They are all holding machine guns and not smiling much. My driver and guide both had to get out of the car at each of the ten checkpoints. I was never asked to even to speak.. Several times they asked the guide where I was from and he for some reason, said England. Since his English was almost non existent,I couldnt ask if the Americans were in disfavor at the moment and just accepted my new citizenship. My guide or body guard, Llave,thought I had come to see the Hindu temple which was located on the SriLankan army military base. This was not a place I wanted to hang out at for very long as lately both sides had been attacking each others military locations. On the way into Trinco town,we passed a neighborhood of houses made of corrugated metal. After yelling stop several times, theyfinally understood what I wanted. I quickly grabbed my camera and entered the dirt streets that surrounded the corrugated one room houses. The ironic part of this story is that this shanty town is located on the beach,fronting the clear blue Indian Ocean. Most of the neighborhood people could not understand why I wanted to take pictures of them and their houses. I took one of the boy’s addresses and promised to send them photos. Llave,my guide, seemed nervous,afraid the military might show up and ask what I was doing and pushed me into the car. When we entered the town,there were barricades and military on every street so I hid my camera. There was garbage everywhere and the wooden storefronts appeared as if they were temporary shelters. This was definitely another SriLanka.

I had met some NGO workers at my hotel on the beach a week ago,who worked in the area and they had suggested I come to Trinco to see what the war had done to half the island. They had also recommended the Palm Beach Hotel,run by an Italian couple,originally from Rome,who had lived in India for over ten years and four years ago,relocated to SriLanka. They had bought a restaurant on the south coast forty six days before the Tsunami.. and lost everything after.

We immediately connected and spent several hours conversing in Italian. They told me that most of their business came from NGO workers (non governmental organizations like CARE,UNESCO) who came to eat Donnatella’s amazing Italian food. I told they were the oasis in the desert. The ocean was 10 meters away so I changed into my psuedo bath underware bikini and ran down to the beach. Supposedly this was one of the most beautiful beaches on the island. The war, the Tsunami and the poverty had turned it into a deserted, desolate,garbage strewn landscape. I was the only swimmer in this 2 mile stretch of ocean.

That night,as promised by Donna,the Italian, about twenty or more of the NGO contingent arrived for dinner and a game of Trival Persuit. They were savy,attractive, educated and well-traveled,ranging in age from twenty five to forty five. They came from Italy,Spain,Australian,Austria, Canada,France,and United States. I felt like I was crashing the party as they were definitely a tight group of friends. I was able to talk to a few of them,and find out where they had been and what they did.. I still am not clear on exactly what each of them do. There were several doctors, one a Romanian girl who had been previously to Uganda and Cape Verde, working in the camps or village hospitals. She told me she couldnt go back to her routine life of working in a hospital in Bucharest. She felt that what she was doing was more important and fulfilling. I mentioned to one of the Italian guys,Marco,that it felt like a summer camp situation, everyone always hanging out together. He agreed and said it was disappointing because he didnt come to Sri Lanka to spend so much time with a group of foreigners but the Sri Lankan people are not very open to letting foreigners in their lives.

Unfortunately I had planned poorly and I had only one day to spend in Trincomalee and the next day,I had to leave. The crossing back to the west was more difficult; they seached the car several times and my bags as well, but we succeeded without too many difficulties.

While I was at the Palm Beach, I called Singapore Airlines to check my flight which was to leave at 1 am on Sunday night. I had heard at dinner from some of the Americans, that there are no more flights leaving at night because of the slight altercation with some LTTE planes near the airport last week. My flight had been moved back to 1 pm on Sunday so I immediately picked up my bags in Dambulla and we continued on to a coastal town near the airport. This was the first time I questioned whether I would survive the car trip. This was the worst driver in all of my three months of traveling. As I am sitting in front of the computer,retelling my story, I obviously, survived the wild ride. My trip is finally coming to an end but I still have many more things to share with all of you.

One Response to “The other Sri Lanka”