Feeling the Heat

Trip Start Nov 16, 2007
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Trip End Dec 15, 2007


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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Sunday, November 18, 2007

After briefly touching down at Male (the Maldives) to let honeymooners disembark, I arrived at Sri Lanka's international airport at Katunayaka, just north of Colombo at 3.35pm local time (GMT + 5 hours 30 minutes).  Staggering off the long-haul night flight (12 hours 40 minutes) with only a light hours sleep at most, I was immediately struck by the climate change.
Sri Lanka's position close to the equator means that temperatures remain virtually constant year-round, with coastal and lowland areas enjoying a high temperature of 27-33 degrees centigrade.  Sri Lanka's climate is rather complicated for such a small country (slightly smaller than Ireland), due to the fact that opposite sides of the island are affected by two seperate monsoons.  The southwest monsoon brings rain to the west and southwest coasts from late April/May to September/October (wettest from May to June, best from November to mid-April).  The less severe northeast monsoon hits the east coast, bringing daily deluges (typically lasting 2 hours in the afternoon) from October to March (wettest from November to December, and best from April to September).  Humidity is high everywhere, rising to a sweltering 90% at times in the south-west, and averaging 60-80% across the rest of the island.  With the airport located on the west coast, you could say that 'frosty morning in London' attire was no longer considered optimum! 
Thankfully, I was greeted in arrivals by a pre-arranged driver, holding a placard on which was written "Mr & Mrs Tarkins", wearing a friendly smile, and (most crucially) owner of a air-conditioned car.
It took some while to assure the unsurprisingly disbelieving driver that I had yet to snare myself a Mrs.Parkins (let alone a Mrs.Tarkins - I've quickly come to find the common idiosyncrasies of grammer, speleng, and punctuation found in Sri Lankan English quite charming as well as frequently humourous), but once done, we drove onto spawling Negombo just 10km down the road.
Thanks to its position between the rich ocean waters and the Negombo Lagoon inland, Negombo has also developed into one of the most important fishing ports on the island.  Fishing still dominates the local economy, with the sea providing plentiful supplies of tuna, shark and seer, while the lagoon is the source of some of the island's finest prawns, crabs and lobster.
The people of Negombo are Karavas, Tamil fishermen who converted en masse to Catholicism during the mid-sixteenth century under the influence of Portuguese missionaries, taking Portuguese surnames and becoming the first of Sri Lanka's innumerable de Silvas, de Soysas, Mendises and Peraras.
My hotel was situated right on Negombo's wide and palm tree lined beach.  It was only as I looked out to sea from my balcony that it finally dawned on me that I'd made it; at once able to leave any negativity back in England, and enjoy untapping the seemingly limitless new experiences on offer in such a contrasting environment.  Suddenly fuelled by the spirit of adventure, I dunped my bags, and headed onto the beach for a walk before the fast approaching sunset (around 6pm).
Before I'd even reached the sea, I'd been approached by Vincent, a local fisherman offering a variety of boat trips.  The Karavas are famous for their unusual fishing boats, known as oruwas.  They are distinctive catamarans (a word derived from the Tamil ketti-maran) fashioned from a hollowed-out trunk attached to an enormous sail.
With less than a day to spare before moving onto Colombo, I politely declined, but not before the strapping and deeply tanned fisherman spent some while describing how his tourist trade had been almost terminally hit by the Tsunami and equally debilitating civil war largely carried out in the north and east (more on this another time).
As with his grounded oruwa, hearing Vincent's struggles had rather taken the wind from my sails, and provided a much needed dose of reality in a country where revenues from tourism are so vital to the national economy.
Leaving Vincent behind, I walked a further 40m up the beach before passing a woman standing by the sea, keeping a watch over two children playing by the nearby boats.  As was already becoming customary she introduced herself, as Anna Perera, and having told her of my own plans to travel down the west and south coastlines, she proceeded to tell me her own tsunami story.
As a reminder, this tragic natural disaster took place on the morning of 26 December 2004, causing havoc along the coastlines of countries around the Indian Ocean bringing particular devastation in Sri Lanka, with three-quarters of the island's coastline reduced to a rubble of collapsed houses, smashed boats, and capsized vehicles.  The scale of the devastation was astonishing.  Over 40,000 people were killed here, and a million displaced from their homes, while thousands of buildings were destroyed, along with at least half the island's fishing boats and significant sections of road and railway line - the total damage was estimated at well over a billion dollars.
Prior to that fateful day, Anna (41) lived in Hambantota on the densely populated south coastline.  As with many Sri Lankan's based in the area, Anna lost her home, her land, her job, many relatives, her husband, and one of five children.
Whilst huge quantities of aid and money poured into the country, and numerous agencies sponsored by international governments began work around the coast, sadly the Sri Lankan government itself appeared to contribute very little to the frantic relief effort.  Few Sri Lankan's, including Anna, received anything more than token insurance payouts, while even fewer received direct government aid, despite the millions of dollars pouring into the country.  The government's main contribution to the disaster itself appears to be the enactment of an infamous 100m rule (in January 2006), which forbade those [previously] living within 100m of the coast from rebuilding their houses on their previous sites.  Officially, this was designed to protect those living around the coast from the possibility of a second tsunami, although many see the ruling as a cynical attempt to steal valuable land from impoverished villagers in order to hand it over to hotel developers at a later date.
Whatever the government's motives, the practical consequence was that those with money - mainly meaning those involved in the tourist trade - were able to get around the ruling and rebuild their properties.  Meanwhile, the hundreds of thousands of villagers without access to funds found themselves deprived not only of their destroyed homes, but also their land, leaving no alternative but to live in the temporary tents and shelters provided by international aid agencies whilst the government debated their case with infinite slowness.
In addition, aid, when offered, was often seen as hopelessly inappropriate, with fishermen being moved to new homes miles inland, or entire villages being relocated to new and often unsuitable sites.
Until 4 months ago, Anna was living in aforementioned shelter provided by agencies with her four surviving children (3 girls aged 14, 13 and 10, and 1 boy aged 12) in conditions which can only be described as poor.  Driven by government inaction she was forced to relocate northwards to Negombo where she has a relative.  Having shown interest in her story, Anna asked me to take a look at her new (rented) home, pointing to a collection of small, ramshackle, wooden buildings just off the beach front, and only 60m from where we stood talking.  In that moment, I didn't know what to think.  Within 30 minutes of arriving at the hotel I'd had two conversations which made any unhappiness I may have felt at times over previous months seem very insignificant.  I was also tired, and wary, but agreed to follow. 
Her accommodation was very basic, with two small living/sleeping rooms, and an even smaller general purpose area.  The single bulb threw down light upon sparse furniture, including a couple of chairs, a table and chest of drawers, whilst family photos and various religious artifacts were pinned to the walls near the entrance.
Anna teaches the children herself because of difficulties getting them into the local school, initially because they are not classed as 'local' residents and latterly because she simply cannot afford the materials to get uniforms made.  The more questions she asked about my privileged London life, the more uncomfortable I felt.  Having rushed out of the hotel with no camera or money, I promised I would return early the next day with a small donation to help uniform her boy.  Obviously grateful, she offered to take me to the tailors to watch them make the uniform (and to prove the genuine nature of her story) but having been afforded a small view of her life, you really couldn't make it up.
With it being the weekend, the beach was busy, with groups of boys playing either rounders or cricket, young sweethearts walking under umbrellas, and local families gathered together.  As a very rare tourist I was constantly smiled at or spoken to by nearly everyone I passed.  Apparently, western concepts of privacy and solitude are little understood (I would have better understood why, if it had only been the ladies!) in an island whose culture is based on extended family grouping and closely knit societies in which everybody knows everyone else's business (a bit like the village Debenham, where I grew up!).  Natural curiosity tends to express itself in the form of endless questions, typically "where are you from?", "how long are you in Sri Lanka?", "what are you doing [while you're here]?", "do you like Sri Lanka?" and "what is your name?".  It does drive you slightly crazy after a while, but it's important to stay polite and keep smiling - and even found I quite enjoyed some of the banter (especially about the impending Test series).
The rest of the evening was largely uneventful, save for the restaurant where a magnificently huge and delicious Parrot fish was brought out fresh, with orange scales resplendent, for a viewing before being returned for devouring 20 minutes later simply grilled with garlic, ginger, lemon and lime - an absolute steal at just under 4.  I also had my first taste of the ubiquitous Lion lager sold in large (625ml) bottles, and ranging in price from 0.75-1.25 depending on where you're served.
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