Open for business. After a brutal civil war lasting 20 years, peace seems to be holding in Sri Lanka.
Simon Calder visits this beautiful country before the crowds of tourists return
Saturday 18 January 2003
Open for business
Some barricades along the highways of Sri Lanka have been in place for so long that enterprising soldiers have taken to selling advertising space on them. The camouflage effect of a heavily fortified position, constructed with oil drums, earth and sandbags, is diminished once the ads are applied. The toothpaste manufacturer who has bought up all the slots in the former capital of Anuradhapura probably thought decorating the barriers with pictures of his product was a safe long-term investment. Luckily, he appears to be wrong.
On the map, Sri Lanka looks like a tear that has trickled from the chin of India. The teardrop exploded in 1983. For 19 of the past 20 years the island has suffered from "that bloody war", as a pool attendant at the only luxury hotel in the east accurately described it to me. Sixty-four thousand people have died in the bitter struggle between the Tamil Tigers and government forces, and a similar number are in refugee camps in India. But a year ago, a ceasefire was agreed between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Remarkably, for a world where the cacophony of violence is amplifying, the peace is holding. The checkpoints have been rendered pointless, except for the purposes of rendering assistance to strangers. With luck and perseverance, the military posts will soon be gone, and the oral hygiene marketing people will have to look elsewhere.
So you want to be alone? North-east Sri Lanka is the place to be. One year after the guns fell silent, the most beautiful coast of the island is no longer on the danger list. But that message is only slowly emerging, partly because the Foreign Office is taking its time to issue an "all-clear". Meanwhile, the tourist can enjoy an idyllic, end-of-the-world place that has been largely off-limits for a generation: Trincomalee.
Which was where I was heading on Wednesday afternoon, when the last bus dropped me in the middle of a tranquil nowhere. I was not unhappy to disembark: any bus with a slogan promising "Semiluxery" (sic) is unlikely to possess even a fraction of luxury. If it were an aircraft, the load factor would be in the region of 175 per cent.
Closer inspection revealed the terminus to be a dusty village called Horowupatana; for all Sri Lanka's shortages, place names on the island enjoy a surfeit of syllables.
To set the scene: Britain's A12 heads north-east from London to Ipswich, a distance of about 100 miles. Sri Lanka has its own A12 with an identical trajectory, bearing north-east from the west coast – where I started – to Trincomalee. On this calibration, Anuradhapura is Sri Lanka's Chelmsford (but with 2,500 years of palaces) while Horowupatana is the island's Colchester (but without the nightlife, or indeed daylife). Sticking around was not an appealing option when the best surf in the East was less than 30 miles away. But the traffic had faded as fast as the tropical light was dwindling.
The officer in charge at the checkpoint took over. A stranger in Sri Lanka needs comfort, or at least the next best thing: a seat aboard the only eastbound three-wheeler that evening.
These admirable vehicles are popular from Thailand, where they are known as tuk-tuks, to Trincomalee (please note: do not try that particular journey). A cabin is constructed around a motorised tricycle, and the result approximates to a forced marriage of a Honda 50 and a Reliant Robin. They can seat two people, plus the driver upfront, comfortably. When Lal's three-wheeler was flagged down by the officer, he already had four men in the back of his cab.
Lal looked at me and shook his head – which happily signifies the affirmative in Sri Lanka. With a total of six of us, plus luggage, we began to weave unsteadily in the general direction of the Bay of Bengal. Occasionally the surface was smooth enough to permit some gentle sightseeing. The countryside comprised a tranquil dappling of rice paddies, punctuated to the south by a parade of ancient volcanoes, slowly subsiding back into the earth. As, indeed, were we.
It has been a while since I last travelled by road between Colchester and Ipswich, but my recollection is of a dull dual carriageway. On Sri Lanka's A12, some of the axle-snapping craters in the road emulated the volcanoes that were gradually abating in the southern mist.
Inside the three-wheeler, there was cheerful uproar at the absurdity of such a vehicle hurtling through the gloom; earnest analysis of the island's cricketing performance against Australia; and a Sri Lankan-style personal grilling with a twist.
Any visitor to the island soon gets acquainted with the refreshing directness of its people. Barely have you said "Hello" and told them your name than they demand your age, marital status and monthly salary. But my five fellow travellers also wanted to know who I worked for. " The Independent," I replied. They looked blank, so I added helpfully, "It's a popular daily newspaper based in London." Still nothing. We went back to cricket.
In Sri Lanka, getting there is at least half the fun, except during the civil war. On my last visit, on any bus journey you could expect to be offloaded at least once at an army road block, lined up and frisked roughly. This ran contrary to the islanders' normally overwhelming good humour and politeness, best characterised by the standing order pinned up in the island's Post Offices insisting everyone should "Smile and Be Courteous". The instruction was not observed during these uncomfortable interruptions. Security in the north-east was so tight that, more often than not, travellers would be turned back. Though Trincomalee itself was not a war zone, it might as well have been. But this week we rolled straight through a dozen of them in a row with nothing but grins and courtesy all round.
When the three-wheeler finally collapsed in an exhausted heap in the middle of town, and we passengers could reacquaint ourselves with long-numb parts of our bodies, I wandered into the Alhamra restaurant for a fish curry. (As usual, the bill was the right side of 50 pence.)
A fellow diner asked the same question: "Who do you work for?" and responded with the same incomprehension. Signs on the streets revealed why. The chances are that a stranger here is employed by Ausaid, Action contre la Faim or Oxfam. Foreign intervention is a habit in Trincomalee. The town is blessed – or cursed – with the finest natural harbour in Asia. It is an enormous bowl with a narrow opening to the sea. Four centuries ago, the Danes arrived here on one of their rare voyages of discovery. But the Portuguese took the port and built a fort, losing it successively to the Dutch and then the English; the Empire's first foothold on the island. Thousands of Tamils were shipped in from southern India to work on the plantations. Some say that this precipitated the 20th-century conflict. Yet on the surface, Trincomalee in 2003 seems a contended blend of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. As I searched for the Silver Star Hotel (£3.50 a night single, including a cup of "bed tea"), a white UNHCR four-wheel drive roared past on yet another mission to save the world.
The hammering on the door began early on Thursday morning: bed tea had urgently to be delivered to the stranger in Room 8. Daylight is not a quality to be squandered on the eastern shore of Sri Lanka, when Trincomalee has a trio of bays to promenade upon.
The first is the arc of the harbour itself, which rates as highly for natural beauty as Sydney and Vancouver, without the civic accoutrements (or tourists). A flotilla of fishing boats danced lightly on the gentlest of waves. Offshore, the names Powder Island and Sober Islands speak of the naval heritage: Trincomalee was Britain's main Indian Ocean base during the Second World War.
Dutch Bay is more exposed to the ocean, but not so the deer are perturbed. Yes, deer: a colony of these antlered beasts forages for a living on the wide beach, untroubled by tourists.
The third bay faces directly out to sea, battered by waves that would inspire any surfer (good luck squeezing your board into that three-wheeler). Between the two stands a headland with a history. Behind the sea wall guarding Fort Frederick is a rare late 18th-century colonial mansion, now officers' quarters. It is referred to variously as Wellesley Lodge and Wellington House.
What everyone agrees with is that it changed the course of history: the Duke of Wellington fell ill and recuperated here while his ship sailed home; she was lost with all hands off Aden. The Iron Duke made it back safely, to the chagrin of Napoleon. The headland culminates in a granite pinnacle, surrounded by a Hindu temple, from which the coast curves seductively northwards.
The best place to be seduced by the ocean, and the solitude, is 10 miles north at Nilaveli. Amid pre-war optimism, the Nilaveli Beach Resort was constructed as the vanguard of mass tourism; a generation on, surfing, snorkelling and boat trips across to Pigeon Island are still on offer. But so far, takers are few. This is not yet peak tourist season for the north-east coast. An hour spent monitoring the vast and well-maintained swimming pool on Thursday revealed a total of zero bathers. Yet the signs are encouraging, said Raj on reception: "We are getting local people from Colombo, and some Germans." They are the lucky few, but Sri Lanka needs the lucky many to help to heal the deep wounds of conflict.
A few miles back down the road, the UNHCR's brand stands out clearly from the roofs of simple houses. Instead of the traditional palm thatch, they are protected by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' tarpaulins.
With the ocean seething quietly, it is easy to forget the complexity of the political fixes that need to be made if peace is to hold. The parallels with Ireland, a similar-sized island, are strong. A generation of division in the north must be overcome, despite a rebel army unenthusiastic about surrendering its weapons. Hatred needs to dwindle into compromise.
Any hope that the swimming pool will fill with roasting Europeans? Perhaps. On the journey back from the resort to Trincomalee, I was startled to see a soldier aiming a machine gun straight at our bus. But as we approached, the surface of the barricade turned out to be decked daintily in red, white and yellow flowers. Guns and daisies: which will prevail?
Getting there: Simon Calder paid £595 for a London-Colombo return on SriLankan Airlines and Emirates, through Quest Travel (0870 444 5552, www.questtravel.com). This includes stopovers in the Maldives and Dubai on the inbound leg.
Staying there: He paid £20 a night at the Tissawewa Rest House in Anuradhapura (00 94 25 22299), and £3.50 a night at the Silver Star in Trincomalee (00 94 26 22348). When last heard of, he was attempting to catch the Night Mail train from Trincomalee to Colombo, for a fare of £1.30.
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