HOLIDAY DISASTERS

Backpacking in a world of your own is fine, but when Paul Pearson got to Sri Lanka, he wished he had bothered to read a newspaper

On 19 July, 1989, I flew from Thailand into Colombo airport in Sri Lanka. A bad move. Having been backpacking for a longish period of time, I was unaware that the political situation there had deteriorated and the simmering civil war had recently exploded back into life.

I managed to get from Colombo Airport to the central railway station by public transport and booked an onward ticket to Kandy that evening. The train arrived in Kandy in the humid, busy darkness of an Asian night. It was a rush to find a bed for the night and some food after a long day of travelling.

Next morning I had decided to head straight for Polonnaruwa, an ancient city north of Kandy. Travel in Sri Lanka, as in India, is chaotic at the best of times. It was even worse than usual.

Government buses were on strike, so the only way to get to Polonnaruwa was by a 25-seat private bus. In good Sri Lankan style, the conductor fitted more than 50 people on to the bus for the four-and-a-half-hour journey.

All the same, for most of the first 12 hours or so, Sri Lanka appeared a beautiful, peaceful country. That image was shattered within a few minutes travel from Kandy as we passed a bus at the roadside which had been attacked that morning and was now the centre of a Sri Lankan army operation.

We were all made to get off the bus and walk along the road in single file - dense jungle on either side - as we were searched and our papers were checked. When we finally arrived in Polonnaruwa, the city was without electricity and under curfew.

Early that evening, after the tropical night had fallen and before the curfew came into force, I went for a walk by the side of the city's artificial lake.

As a cool breeze was blowing off the lake, I sat there for a while to find some relief from the heat and humidity of the day. At regular intervals patrols of soldiers passed by and, across the lake, sporadic flares lit up further military activity.

Next day, I had hoped to continue north-east to Trincomalee but was told it was impossible to get there and foolish to try. So instead, I made my way to Anuradhapura to see the ancient sites there.

But things were even worse in Anuradhapura as, along with the curfew and no electricity, there was no water either. I decided to return to Kandy the next day.

In a short time, the political situation had deteriorated rapidly. The day that I left Anuradhapura, a police jeep was blown off the road south of Polonnaruwa by a mine. Six people had died. Returning to Kandy, our bus was stopped three times by heavily armed soldiers and again we were forced off the bus and made to walk along the road in single file, only to be picked up further down the road again by the bus.

Back in Kandy, there were army road blocks everywhere, soldiers and armoured cars patrolling the streets, and two bombs exploded in the city that night.

The following day I returned to Colombo as the situation deteriorated further. The airport was heaving with Sri Lankans trying to leave - I hadn't seen a single foreign tourist all week.

At check-in I was told that I had not reconfirmed my seat so it had been reallocated. I was stunned. I had to get out. I had to catch a connecting flight to Sydney the next day.

I begged, I implored, I lied, I bribed. When it worked, I have never been so relieved in all my life.

I was even more relieved when I heard that later that day, the airport had been closed as three days of general strikes began and that the violence had escalated.

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