Travel-ations and Grenades
Observations From a Somewhat Dangerous Land
I’ve just returned from a weekend in Prohibited Territory, or rather, The Places I’m Supposed to Ask the Embassy for Permission to Go. I didn’t. Had planned to visit Malka in Vavuniya: “VOW-nya” not “va-VOO-ni-ya,” as foreigners generally have it). However she and Kevin, her visiting pal from the US, had already commandeered a vehicle and invited some peeps from her NGO to go to Trincomalee on the coast to see the amazing kovil (Hindu temple) and lovely beaches there. Therefore I took a 5-hour normal bus—like a schoolbus, no AC though not warranted cuz the weather was nice—up to Vavuniya, spent the night and met some NGO folks, then shipped out early the next morning for Trinco.
Vavuniya is the last Army-controlled town north before you hit the Vanni, the amorphous strip of LTTE territory. The last Army checkpoint is about twenty minutes north on the A9; from there you can look down the road and see the first LTTE checkpoint, where they stop all vehicles, search your bags (for contraband, including porn, I am told), and charge you the traveling “tax.” Their income-generation projects, including the tax/bribe, are quite organized and clever. They’ve taken a page from the Mass. State Troopers and have tons of speed traps; suddenly the posted speed limit will go from 70kmph to 30kmph, for no reason, and they’ve got a cadre there with a “radar gun” (maybe working, maybe not) to tell you you’re doing 34. This is all hearsay, by the way—I didn’t go north of Vavuniya. Yet.
Going there, even as briefly as I did, was important and educational for me. I forget that many many people in this country do not speak Sinhala. It was a sort of mirror-world as compared to the places in Lanka I’m familiar with; similar layout of town, same types and chains of shops, much of the same food, etc; however most of the local shrines were to Ganesh or Kataragama rather than to Buddha, and the signs and conversations were in Tamil. There were lots of cows and bicycles, though that’s more a dry-zone thing than a religious or cultural thing. We in Kandy don’t ride bikes much because it’s hillier than San Francisco; your knees would die.
It chastened me. I generally assume that I ‘know’ Sri Lanka and can get along anywhere just fine. Plenty of people there speak Sinhala (at least a little), but it’s not their language and they’re a little indignant if you speak to them in Sinhala when they’d prefer English. The whole conflict, basically, has been about language rights; how foolish of me to think my Sinhala gives me quasi-insider access to the whole island? I hope to go to Jaffna sometime in January and see what that’s like. I may try to get some Tamil classes so that I’m not a total ignorant jerk.
Trinco is the beach area in the Northeast I visited as an ISLE student; then it was barely barely developed for tourism; lots of little guesthouses and “tourist rests” have sprouted up in the two years since then. About two weeks ago there was a lot of rioting and a bus was hand-grenaded there around the LTTE Heroes’ Day; it’s not LTTE territory but they have a large presence, and the raging Sinhala nationalists (a specific political party) basically made lots of trouble by trying to keep LTTE from flying their flags etc. Their flag is hideous, by the way—it’s a roaring tiger head and claws popping out a red background. It looks like a bad 70s high school mascot. Anyway the northeastern monsoon is still going strong, so, no tourists. Either that or they were chilling out inside their guesthouses.
The kovil was beautiful as I remember—perched high on a promontory between the main town area and the huge Trincomalee Bay (reputed site for secret US Navy submarine base). There are amazing ocean views and waves shooting up fissures in the cliff-face, gaudily painted fishing boats bobbing by below on the bluedeep, strips of bright gold—threaded coloured fabric tied to tree branches (part of worship) fluttering in the breeze. We burned incense, got our foreheads decorated with sacred ash and oil and red powder, and smashed coconuts.
Smashing coconuts is fun; you put camphor blocks on top of them, set the camphor on fire, and wave the smoke around your head before hurling the coconut with all your might onto a big rock provided for the purpose. Monkeys hang around to eat the smashed bits. It was a Sunday, nice day for agoen’ to the temple, so there were more coconuts than the monkeys could handle. You really have to slam the coconut if you want it to break properly (spilling the coconut water and putting out the camphor and fulfilling your vow or whatever) and often they don’t break the first time so you see people fishing their coconuts out of the wreckage pile and trying again. Sometimes they’ll nab someone else’s insufficiently smashed coconut and give that one a go, too. Old ladies are the best at the wind-up. I am pitiful especially given my extreme height and muscularity compared to your average 4’10” 85lb. sari-wrapped achchi.
Lucky for us the rain stopped while we were climbing up to the kovil and doing our pujas. As we were walking down it started drizzling and the Sri Lankans, wise as they are about the nature of rain, hightailed it to the van. Malka and I mocked them and sauntered leisurely down, forgetting that an afternoon drizzle during monsoon is basically the sixty seconds before it Really Starts Raining. We stopped under a very effective tree once the windows of heaven were opened and waited for the driver, Kumar, to bring us an umbrella. Then we went into town and stuffed ourselves with buriyani.
After that it cleared up again and so we went 20km north to this gorgeous beach. It was cloudy and windy but Malka and I decided to put swimsuits on, and basically risked flashing a small busload of innocent-looking Lankans and some little boys selling candy. The water was lovely and warm[-er than the air] and the waves quite pleasant. As opposed to the beaches in the south, which shelve off pretty quickly, there the water is shallow for about 100 yards offshore, so you have this enormous breaker zone with about waist-high water and smallish waves (which break further out and re-form) rolling in.
Eventually we hauled back to the van and heading back towards Anuradhapura. You have to understand that this constitutes about three hours each leg (Vav-Trinco-A’pura) over Very Lousy Roads some of the time. The dry zone is beautiful though, and nice to drive in when the checkpoints and potholes are scarce. We stopped to buy a fish (and a bucket, and ice) to take for dinner, and then to have tea and egg hoppers, and then for buffalo curd (which is best in that region). We arrived in A’pura in pouring rain at about eight-thirty and were dropped at the house of Malka’s NGO’s chairman, a lovely lovely open-air building on the edge of one of the wewas (“tanks,” huge ancient-built-still-in-use reservoirs) and showered and drank tea and waited for the housekeeper/cook/cool dude, Susila, to cook our fish. Having eaten we fell into exhausted stuffed stupor.
Today I came back to Kandy. Five hours on a bus Saturday, six-plus in a van yesterday, and three and a half today—on an A/C bus too, which is really tiring because it’s stuffy and cold—I’m tiiiiired. Did some in-town errands which I can hardly remember at this point and then went to ICES for the Sunday papers.
Read about a hand-grenade bombing in Colombo Saturday; there was a big Indian film-star concert (20,000 audience) and someone threw a grenade near the VIP area. Two people died. The event had been protested because it fell on the one-year death anniversary (an important date for Buddhists) of this influential nationalist-extremist monk from the JHU, the monks’ party. There were protests earlier in the day before the concert and a bunch of monks were having a fast-unto-death, which they called off when the concert organizers formally apologized.
Anyway no one seems to know what the grenade business was about. It can’t be LTTE because it’s way out of their line (suicide bombers, actual specific people or institutions targeted) and it probably isn’t the JHU given that their protest was already happening someplace else at that point. My theory is that it was someone with a grenade and an Imp of the Perverse—apparently the people killed and injured were near but not in the VIP seating area, and the thrower may have simply wanted to throw ordinance around. There were lots of pyrotechnics and firecrackers going off anyway. Maybe s/he aimed badly.
It’s a terrible shame of course—besides the loss of life, it’s a real blow to the social world. The last thing Lankans need is a reason to be scared of going out and having fun. People are already distrustful of others and afraid of being ‘out’ and vulnerable. It’s the stay-at-home mentality that keeps there from being a rich civil society here. There is this perception that the world is full of bad people, and if you leave home both your person and your house are going to get assaulted, robbed, etc. It’s the unpleasant side of a well-developed attachment to housebound R&R.
Anyway I’m blathering. More later, maybe. I have to go, like, do some work…