Special Feature — Coast to Coast

Everything in Sri Lanka is either sweet or spicy. Often both. Our people; our tea.”

I approached the east coast of Sri Lanka like a foreign invader, scanning her green coast across a narrow expanse of azure water that separated my rubber dinghy from the pale beach. Bodies turned to shiny black obsidian by the scorching sun and the cool sea ignored me as we cut our outboard and cruised in; too intent on splashing their friends or diving off each other’s shoulders into the gentle waves. A few, interrupted their day at the beach to look past me to the sailing yacht I had just left, anchored offshore, rocking peacefully. I was no invader, but after thirty years of war, I felt like a foreigner.

I hit the road north out of Pasikuda, following the shoreline of Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province. The road was arrow straight for long stretches, though sometimes frighteningly narrow when meeting oncoming traffic. In many places, jungle that had been slashed and burned back from the road, to prevent ambushes, hadn’t grown back even seven years after the war. I wondered which side had done it. My memory of the battles in this area were a bit sketchy.

I flinched and tensed as metal flashed in the sun on the jungle’s edge. A light machine-gun would reach across the two hundred metres to the road with ease. The axe caught the light again as the two young women chopped firewood from a fallen tree. I increased speed, focusing on the true danger; lunatic Sri Lankan bus drivers barreling down the middle of the road.

In a flash of nostalgia for a faded wartime road trip from the now distant ’90s, I headed through Trincomalee to Clappenburg Bay, one of the smaller coastal inlets off the vast Koddiyar Bay. The famous Sea Anglers Club had been derelict and abandoned the last time I had come looking for lunch. Now it was simply gone. The Air Force had just taken it over at the end of the war and turned it into a golf course. The loneliest golf course in the world. There was no one playing the sun bleached links, and the surly sentries at the gate seemed mildly annoyed by my visit. I was told the restaurant was open only on weekends; so no lunch then. After some discussion, the sentries allowed me to drive in with a vague promise of food at the canteen. The food was a few dry buns and antiquated cream crackers, and I was warned not to go into the inviting water of Clappenburg Bay for fear of crocodiles. So much for nostalgia.

North of Trincomalee, I cut the corner of the North-Central Province where it jutted into the northeast, stopping for a late afternoon break in the border area of Welioya. Once a Tamil area known as Manal Aru until the government started its colonisation programme in the 1980s, it was now decidedly Sinhalese. Lush paddy fields spread to the horizon under the blazing sun, watered by the reservoirs built by ancient kings and dead presidents.

I stopped at a small kadé – the ubiquitous Sri Lankan roadside shack, serving village and city street as both café and corner store – looking for a cup of tea. The kadé was run by local men, most of them wearing a mix of civilian garb – sarongs, sleeveless undershirts – and military uniforms like camouflage t-shirts and olive green shorts. Farmers by day, for a generation they had put down their farming tools each sunset and picked up government-supplied assault rifles to guard their fields from the marauding guerrillas that had regularly decimated these hamlets. But the last time the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had made a determined assault had been in 1995, when hundreds of guerrillas were killed in a futile attack on the heavily defended area. The Tamil Tigers were gone now. The Sinhalese farmers were still here.

The men in the kadé were hard and weathered, suspicious of strangers; but the tea was hot, sweet, and spiced with ginger. Eventually softened by my questions and cigarettes, they cooked up delicious coconut rottis over a wood fire, serving them up with magma-strength lunumiris – a spicy onion relish. Yes, everything in Sri Lanka is either sweet or spicy. Often both. Our people; our tea.

The war had all but disappeared from the Northeast, at least from the main roads. At its peak, in the 1990s, I was a regular visitor to the East, visiting friends in Batticaloa or holidaying in Nilaweli, just a couple of hours away from here, down the coast. In the year after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, I had visited the east several times, ferrying Protestant priests and church aid to the devastated coastal communities. I hadn’t been back to the east since the war ended. The checkpoints and fortified military outposts – Army and Tiger – straddling the main roads were gone, leaving broad, circular clearings, like scars that had ripped back the green fur of the scrub jungle to reveal the torn ochre flesh beneath. If you looked hard, an occasional bullet-pocked building revealed itself; the derelict Punani railway station, a few houses. The scars might run deep in Sri Lanka, but the surface was untroubled.

I stayed the night in a small motel just south of Vavuniya, obviously built after the war. The food was mediocre, and there was no beer but, surprisingly, the coffee was exceptional, dark and Italian. Topped up with a shot of arrack from the quarter that lived in my toilet bag, it was good company that evening as I sat on the porch of my log cabin, smoking and watching the ducks splash their way across the pond that was slowly turning red with the lowering sun.

The next morning I was back on the road, racing up the southern edge of the Wanni, heading for Mannar, on the west coast. By lunchtime, I was crossing the long causeway across the shallows onto Mannar Island. In contrast to the excellent roads on the mainland, the main road on the island was horribly potholed. It was also very crowded, and I was kept busy, dodging bicycles, children, the omnipresent tuktuks, and hundreds of goats.

Eventually, the road ran out, swinging north to the Talaimannar Pier where, before the war, a regular ferry service crossed the Palk Straits to Rameswaran. I turned off the main road and kept driving, trying to go as far west as I could. When this was no longer possible, I walked, through the blazing noonday sun and into the sand; past huts built of palm fronds, through the reek of karawala, Mannar’s famous sun-dried fish, until the Palk Straits stretched before me, magically blue and inviting.

I took off my sandals and walked across the burning sand and into the cool, welcoming surf, sighing with relief. The tears of Mary Magdalene on the feet of Jesus could not have been more pleasurable. I squinted to the horizon. Somewhere out there, beyond my sight, was Adam’s Bridge, the Sethubandhanam of the Ramayana, built by the invading Rama, determined to wrest back his Sita from the Rakshasa king, Ravana of Lanka. The chain of tiny islands, 50km long, connecting Sri Lanka to Mother India like a lacerated umbilical cord, feels representative of our relationship; fractured but undeniable.

Note on speed: The roads are often very good in the Northeast, open and free of traffic, inviting that heavy right foot. But the cops are hungry. I was charged twice.

I recently noticed that some of my travel writing done for various magazines over the last few years are no longer available on those sites, or have been placed behind paywalls. To keep them accessible to my followers I will be posting versions of these articles as ‘specials’ from time to time on this blog. This is the first. A version of this piece ran in the 19th September 2016 issue of Outlook India.


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