Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Hometime

Signs that it is time to go home: drying last pair of knickers with a hairdryer; have had to buy another bag to take home all that I have collected and bought; miss family; too exhausted to walk the Colombo streets and knock back the calls of  'Hey taxi Darling'; have to move house over Easter; need to get Adam re-elected.  All good reasons to head home.

I ventured to the K-Mart equivalent yesterday to buy a 'goodies' back.  Mayhem.  But I survived. It was a public holiday for Buddhist new year.  Busy beach, busy streets.  35 degrees.  Time to retreat to the hotel and enjoy one day of rest and reading.

A short ten day trip and I am much wiser about Sri Lanka, about Australia's potential to develop meaningful and helpful policy positions, about the history of the country and the experience of Tamils during the war years, about the tensions that still exist.

The President of SL is part of a ruling family dynasty: with two brothers as Ministers, a son as an MP and another relative involved at high levels.  There is mistrust and sceptisim on both sides.  There is a complex web of international relationships and an explicit fear of ex-pat Tamil communities on behalf of the Government.

Many accuse the President of awarding potential war-criminals with diplomatic immunity by posting them as Ambassadors overseas - such as in Australia.  The international community has a responsibility to take this seriously.  Sri Lanka wants the international community to butt out.  But with Tamils arriving on our doorstep, this is unrealistic and unhelpful.

There is more the international community can do - but that will never make up for what it didn't do between January and May 2009, the last months of the civil war, when probably over 100,000 civilians were killed.  Hopefully, the Tamils in indefinite detention in Australia will be released in the next few months - and we will take steps towards a more refined and constructive foreign policy with respect to Sri Lanka.

Out of here for now. See you Lanka - you beautiful, and complicated, country.

Forgot to mention...

... spotting a tattered UNHCR tarpaulin creating a shelter on a ruined home in Jaffna province;
...drinking fresh coconut water harvested from a coconut at the family's home in Jaffna: drop, chop, pour;
...organising to visit a shop in Colombo today, but the owner forgetting it was Buddhist full moon and so a holiday;
...forgetting to bring a hairbrush (that's how much I care) but packing lots of useless socks;
...almost making the mistake of using my newly learnt Tamil in Colombo;
...girls my age usually go to Italy to buy shoes or New York to buy clothes; I've come to Sri Lanka to buy wooden peacock masks;
...being asked by nearly every tuktuk driver if I wanted to buy gems;
...explaining sunscreen to the children of my friend in Jaffna.

Monday, March 25, 2013

An international affair

Each day, more pieces of the puzzle fall into place.  But first, the last day in Jaffna began with a chance breakfast meeting with a BBC film crew - here to do a story on Tamils in Sri Lanka post-war.  I will be interested to see the German and BBC interpretations.  So many possible angles: ongoing trauma; reluctance to speak out; desire for peace and quiet lives; lost loved ones; slow rebuilding; poverty and educational limitations.

I met with my friend's family one last time.  Communication is getting easier as I struggle to wrap my tongue around Tamil sounds but come out with something passable and we improve our use of gestures and charades.  They treat me like royalty: seated in the one seat that is directly near the fan; painting my nails; feeding me constantly (a sweet called Muscat, grapes, red rice and coconut sweet dish, lunch of rice and fish with vegetable dishes).

They are delighted to see my own family via Skype and laugh at how different we are: skin color, housing, language, experience of the world.

Our farewells are sad.  I take more gifts for their son in Australia.  And I capture a little more of their experiences on video to help corroborate the story of my friend who is in indefinite detention.  We talk about the LTTE, the Sri Lanka Army, the war.

The mother talks about how the wartime has impacted her life: her husband suffers and cannot work, her son was killed, her other son cannot reclaim his land, and then a son waiting for a visa in Australia for three years.  She says she makes food to sell each day to try to look after her family.  She is a strong, but gentle, woman.  For the first time, she cries.

My offers to sponsor the eldest granddaughter's education have been turned down - pride wins out.  My friend in Australia keeps telling me it is his duty to provide for his parents, and I tell him he can do that when he is released, but in the meantime, I can help.  He shakes his head.

But as I leave, I quietly slip Rs.5000 ($50) into the hands of the mother - the one bearing the burden of caring for her family. As I suspect, she gratefully accepts.

I don't know if I will see this gentle, loving, generous family again.  I hope their children can grow up in peace.  The mother says that Skype is not enough: she wants to hold her son.  I say very quietly that maybe that can somehow be arranged, but I know it is unlikely.

What is the future for Sri Lanka and Tamil families such as this?  The gentle wish to live in peace is simple, but the pathway is very complicated. I keep coming back to 'What is it that Sri Lanka needs in order to maintain peace, equality and prosperity?'  The government, the international community, the UN and local Tamils all seem to have different answers.  Until there is a unified answer, I fear that Sri Lanka is on the brink of further tension and even violence.

This morning's paper is instructive: the headline is 'Double standards of powerful countries at UNHCR'.  Articles in the paper express anger at the international community (which the govt says is fueled by an LTTE rump) for ignoring Sri Lanka's post war achievement and for forgetting how horrific LTTE terrorism was.  There is also a story about the Navy arresting fishermen from Tamil Nadu - despite India's Tamil party (DMK) requesting that India protect its fishermen.

When the daily newspaper quotes the Defence Minister as say there were many so called champions of human rights in the the international media and in international NGOs who continued to attack the country and alleged that some of them had publicly accepted donations from LTTE-linked groups, it is clear that mistrust and division is firmly cemented in Sri Lanka politics.

I wonder if it is not so much separatism and self-determination that would benefit Tamils as The Government enacting openness, trust and a willingness to agree upon and implement an ongoing solution for peace that involves the international community.  Wishful thinking.  But the alternative is worrying.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

China

Forget deploying road aid from Australia. According to the lovely guy who drive me around the district today, massive contracts have already been signed with Chinese contractors. The new hospital in Jaffna was built by the Chinese - not to forget the massive towers going up in Colombo.
I am joining speculative dots, but it wouldn't surprise me if Australia's foreign policy wrt Sri Lanka actually has more to do with China. I have been told china supplied weapons to the SL government during war time and that locals are not too pleased about the ongoing close relationship between China and Sei Lankan governments. Australia may not mind distancing itself from Sri Lanka - but if that were to jeopardize diplomacy with china, the puzzle stars to make sense.
I have noticed that my blog has a following from China - coincidence I hope.

I explored the coastline of the top of Sri Lanka today: dipped my toes in the warm Indian ocean, drove past ruins from war from 1981-1996; stopped by at the Jaffna library (the largest in Asia) which was totally burnt out in 1981 probably by the Sri lankan police.
We also visited an historic fort built by the Portuguese and many colorful and elaborate temples.

At one stop, a tranquil port for fishing boats, I was told by a soldier bearing fearsome arms that I couldn't take a photo. The photo would have shown water, birds and fishing boats. We decided that two men needed to feel very important, drive down the road a bit and took photos from the car.

Apart from the ruins, which were not helped by the tsunami in 2004 in this area, and navy, police and soldiers at every corner, the area is peaceful and relaxed. I hope it stays this way.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

An Aussie in Jaffna

I was collected from the hotel on a scooter - a slower bike though maybe just slower for my benefit. Hurtling over the potholes was more like a carnival ride. The side roads are more pothole than road an it is often best to abandon the road for the gravel shoulder. I wonder if Australia could send road construction teams over to employ locals and allow for better transport. Although the road quality does keep the tuktuks and scooters to a slow pace, all of the bike-riders, often dinking children, could do with a smooth path. Not sure how the roads cope with the wet season.

In front of the house is a makeshift tutorial centre where a dozen children are spending their Saturday learning from a teacher who looks close to 12.  They study all day. I drop by in the morning and leave them with a koala. They call me back later to give me a gift. Later in the day they find a cricket set and assuming I know a thing or two about cricket, ask me to play.  My batting is passable but my bowling a disgrace! Lots of whooping and howzat hoolas. It's a lot of fun.

I met the rest of the family today: a sister and her two children.

As we sit outside in the shade of the palms, I show the children a few games in my iPhone. They are delighted. Of course they have never seen an iPhone or played the collection of games my kids have put on it.

We visit a water hole on the way home - a strange phenomenon. There is no known water source, no known depth and the water level is constant despite the rainy and dry season variations. Hindu mythology tells of the water hole being a divine bathing spot for a god and goddess. Scientists have probed it with no conclusive results. It has survived unchanged for centuries. A comforting constant.

At home we eat more.... And then some more. I am being fed like a foreign traveller!  Beautiful fish curry. We had purchased the fish from the market earlier and watched a man cut the scales away, the stomach out and the head and tail off. He was surrounded by cats. Where there are dead fish, there are cats.

My stomach is no match for their generosity. I have to learn to say no thank you or my stomach will burst. Grapes and Lankan coffee to follow. It is divine - coffee ground with coriander, cinnamon, sugar and other spices mixed with warm milk.

We chat with their son via Skype for most of the lazy and relaxed afternoon. I point out that the children in their family match my own in age and gender - except for the baby in Autralia. I show pictures on my phone if my 'ama' with her grandchildren in a similar portrait to the one I am witnessing.
Then I learn that the eldest grand-daughter has been studying all morning at tutorials. She is 11 or 12 I think.  Her father explains that his life has been disrupted by war. That his dreams of being a lawyer were thwarted by having to move around, leave school, earn money for the family. He dreams that his two daughters will be lawyers and his son a doctor.

He can't afford English tutorial classes - they cost the equivalent of $25 per month. On his casual salary of $3.90 per day, he can only afford to send her to the Tamil tutorial classes at $5.90 a month. 
I am determined to help - appalled that the yearly fee for the English classes is equivalent to the price I have paid for three nights accommodation.

My offers are, of course, refused. They tell me Tamils are giving people. I tell them I am a givin person too so one of us had better learn how to take! They laugh but we don't resolve the standoff about me sponsoring the daughter to take English tutorials. That debate is not over!

I slept for 12 hours last night after driving back past temples glowing in the sunset.

There are many ways that Australians can help Sri Lanka continue to build peace and prosperity. Locking up asylum seekers or sending them off to camps in islands are not on the list. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Another view

I enjoyed breakfast talking with two German journalists who are here to report on Sri Lanka post war.
We covered many different views of the situation: does the international community have any idea what is really going on? What do the people of Sri Lanka really need? Why on earth would Australia think that Tamils who seek refuge in Australia are a threat to national security?
One ifthe journalists last saw Sri Lanka in 2009 and her descriptions of the changes are interesting.
We conclude that the Tamils in Sri Lanka for the most part want peace. They were frustrated when options for peace were not taken up ten years ago.
People want to rebuild their lives, their economy, even their cross-ethnic relationships.
The international diaspora may want justice. But it seems people here just want peace and security.
What can the international community do? Support reconciliation, rebuilding, peace and prosperity.
How to do this? I'll have to take that question on notice for now.

Jaffna post civil war

Lovely sleep. Woken by church bells and music from temples. Guess that comes from staying in a hotel on 'Temple road'.
Jaffna has been in recovery for longer than the southern parts of the previously LTTE controlled area of Sri Lanka. Although the population has been halved, people who were displaced from Jaffna in the 90s have been back for at least 10 years.
Not so for other parts. My friend's brother an her family have land in an area that is still inaccessible. They cannot return to even check that their land and small home still exist in a habitable form.
On the route to Jaffna, we past the passport check point that is still in operation.  Being the only foreigner on the bus, I was the only one to alight and show my passport to the 12 soldiers looking rather bored. The point of the exercise was unclear.
The hotel I am staying at only reopened last October. It is one of the nicest in Jaffna, but it is still simple. A lizard greeted me in te bathroom and there is no Internet access - hence relying on iPhone and a portable wireless device Ramsay sorted for me. (Even that device required 4 visits to shops in Colombo to unlock for the Sri Lankan air waves).
The family I have met lost their second son in the 2009 battles. He was a civilians living with his wife, son and parents in Mullitivu. When the Sri lankan army and the LTTE had their final bloody battle, he was wounded. He was taken to the infamous refugee camp an separated from his wife and son. He later died in Jaffna hospital from complications from the wound.
The oldest brother in the family was wounded in earlier fighting - also as a civilian.
As they tell me their stories, translated by their son in Australia via Skype, they talk softly and their eyes reveal pain. They apologise that it is not easy for them. I apologies for asking.
The estimates of the death toll of civilian Tamils in 2009 from January to May are somewhere between 40,000 and a bigger even more horrific number. I am reading 'Still countin the dead' by Frances Harrison whose interviews with survivors are horrifying.
The coincidence of timing - that the UNHCR voted on the US resolution yesterday - is poignant. The ongoing approach from the Australian government seems perplexing. Why deny the undeniable?  Tamils in Sri Lankahate still afraid of the government, are still traumatized by their experiences and still live under some restrictions with rrespect to access to land, information and
accountability.
It's a complex situation for Australia but I don't believe any other western nations are denying the events of 2009. We have to be better at counting the numbers in that tete a tete.

Homecoming

Jaffna is a long night's bus trip from Colombo.  It is at the tip of Sri Lanka and home to the island's Tamil community. Jaffna was bombed during the earlier war periods in the 80s. Many Tamils fled at this time. Half have never returned. The devastating killings of 2009 happened south of Jaffna- probably along the road we drive along in the pitch black of a warm lankan night.
I sat next to an academic who was happy to chat in English about her children. At one stage her phone received a text message: UNHCR says US resolution won't lead to self-government.  She explained that the phone companies are paid to send messages and advertisements for the govt and other clients. I asked here what she made of that message. She shrugged: I don't get involved in politics, was her reply.
It seems that this is the easiest option for most Tamils living peaceful lives but with horrific memories and lost loved ones.  Head down. Quiet lives. Never again going through the past 40 years.
The only opinion offered by the academic a bit later in our trip was that an opportunity for compromise was squandered in 2005-7 and from there the real horro began.
Jaffna: cows grazing by the road side next to sleeping dogs; women in saris riding bikes; massive colorful temples; modest accommodation; roads potted with holes; and the home of the family of the Tamil refugee I have been helping who has been in detention since December 2009.

His sister, brother and nephew came to fetch me by bicycle and tuktuk.  Language barriers meant that big hugs and smiles had to say it all. His sister beamed. Her head wobbling so hard it was sure to wobble off. His nephew smiled shyly prompting me to reach for the obligatory Koala to be gifted. I was friend after that.
His family house was a humble square of concrete surrounded by a red-dust floor, two roosters, a dingo-dog and palm trees - some coconut.
Worn, but well kept. The family gathered around a lap-top on the porch eager to talk as next we could.
I hugged his mother so hard that I think I winded her. His father approaches more shyly and his sisters took all afternoon to work up the courage to talk with me. I won them over by persistently taking photos when they weren't looking abusing much giggling and delight.
Words weren't needed as I handed over pictures of the son they hadn't seen for close to 9 years. He is their youngest of five. Their baby. His mother's wordless smile made the adventure to Sri Lanka worthwhile. Time paused. For a moment, nothing else mattered.
A family, with one son in Australia still without a visa and one son wounded and killed as a civilian in 2009 after having endured months of surviving in a refugee camp, was, for an afternoon as reunited as it will ever be.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Numbers being counted in Geneva too

So while domestic politics completely consumes Australia - its politicians, its media, voters - I'm having a morning swim in a peaceful lagoon at the hotel in Colombo.  I have a chat to a Croatian American working for World Vision and she recommends a few destinations.  Yesterday I ran into a UN representative in Colombo - me dripping wet in bathers and she with her daughter inspecting rooms for a wedding.  Couldn't really engage in the type of conversation I would have liked.  At least the watering hole is, as always, a good meeting place.

I know there is precious little interest in today's media for anything outside the number 51 and who will get there first.  But I do wish the navel gazing could rest-up for long enough to check out the significant decisions and votes going on elsewhere.

In Geneva today or tomorrow, the UNHCR will vote on the US led resolution regarding monitoring of Sri Lanka's domestic investigations in allegations of war crimes.  The resolution is sponsored by the US, the UK, Canada, Italy, Germany - amongst others.  Not Australia.  Sri Lanka is working on its numbers too:  Among other nations, those who praised the Sri Lanka’s efforts towards achieving national reconciliation were, Thailand, Venezuela, Cuba, Belarus, Myanmar and Vietna http://www.dailymirror.lk/news/26970--developing-nations-expressed-their-confidence.html

Talk here has it that India has demanded it be watered down further than the already diluted version.  Not clear.  It does not amount to an International investigation and it does not amount to self-determination for the Northern (Tamil) Province (to which I am headed tonight).  But unless a small step is taken, nothing is going to happen to act on concerns about the way the war ended in 2009.
Christine Milne as spoken out about it for the Greens: http://greensmps.org.au/content/media-releases/greens-call-australia-end-its-silence-sri-lankas-atrocities
"It is distressing that while the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Bishop Desmond Tutu, the first female President of Ireland Mary Robinson and United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay can see that President Rajapakse must be held accountable, Australia is doing everything it can to accommodate the Sri Lankan regime."
"The Greens support an independent international investigation and Australia should be working to strengthen the draft US-led resolution currently before the UN Human Rights Council, which is extremely weak and does not back calls for an international independent investigation into war crimes committed during the final stages of the war." Senator Christine Milne said.

You can see a summary of the events and an alternative perspective here: http://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/172-opinion/26924-multilateral-legitimacy-for-unilateral-intervention-.html
If there is the political will, Sri Lanka could unite with its natural allies and partners on the basis of common interests, solidarity and genuine cooperation, as has been demonstrated by a country like Cuba, which, despite being subject to a criminal blockade for more than half a century, has succeeded in isolating the United States of America within the UN General Assembly.

The UN resolution won't solve all the problems, but the garnering of international support to take action seems to be directly connected to the way in which Tamil asylum seekers are treated in Australia.  Call it a long shot - I reckon the odds are shorter than those for either Rudd or Gillard.

Sri Lanka is working on its numbers too:
Among other nations, those who praised the Sri Lanka’s efforts towards achieving national reconciliation were, Thailand, Venezuela, Cuba, Belarus, Myanmar and Vietna
http://www.dailymirror.lk/news/26970--developing-nations-expressed-their-confidence.html

Omen one - Angry Buddhist monks

Happy and energetic: the front view of Colombo.  Of course there is an underlying history of trauma, uncertainty, mistrust and political instability.  I ran into the darker side more than once yesterday.
Having been asked by one too many tuk-tuk driver whether I was married and where I was staying, I decided to walk the kilometre or so to the Galle face Green (a spacious area by the sea with kites, ice-creams, food stalls and a few shady palms).
Of course, as it would happen, my walk was interrupted by a protest of Buddhist monks outside the Indian High Commission.   The street was filled with bright orange.  The wall of the building was lined with soldiers.  I hesitated.  But crossing six lanes of Colombo traffic seemed more risky than walking past a pack of monks.
I asked a soldier if I could walk past - and if I could use a camera.  He gave me the traditional Sri Lankan head wobble that looks like it should mean no, but signifies consent and agreement.
And so I proceeded with care between the soldiers and the monks.  Getting out the camera, looking very confident and asking a few people along the way what was happening seemed to create a good cover as an international journalist and suddenly I was part of the mosh pit of journalists capturing the leader's press conference.
Unfortunately I couldn't understand a word of it and no one responded to my calls for an English translation.  But I think I gathered that the monks want the Indian govt to ensure safe travels through Tamil Nadu (TN) following attacks on Sri Lankan monks in TN - assumed to be connected with LTTE or sympathizers.  You can see a real journalist's pictures here:
http://www.demotiximages.com/news/1889230/sri-lankan-buddhist-monks-continue-protest-indian-high-commission#media-1889181
I had visited a Buddhist temple in the morning and read the inscriptions denouncing greed, hate, violence, gambling and promoting giving and sacrifice and self-understanding.  Not sure what a rally of angry Buddhist monks says - but it doesn't bode well.

Lankan taxi vox pop

Hotter today: a stinging sun.  So I opted to pay the $2-3 taxi fares to get to another temple and then the buzzing markets of Pettah.
Colombo has energy and a presto pulse.  The pulse runs at an even higher rate in the streets of Pettah.  I need another visit to make the most of the criss-cross of street each with their own specialty: gems, spices, jewelry, fish, saris, men's underpants.
I bought an amazing green sari, but then lost $20 somehow (after haggling over $6 for the $50 sari). I called it a morning and decided I would head back to pettah tomorrow with more strategy and better money security.
Having taken four tuk-tuks today, I can offer the following hints: only take metered tuk-tuks; even then, settle on a fee between 150-300 Rs before the trip; expect heart-failure - tuk-tuks squeeze through spaces that don't exist; the driver will never have change, so either have small money or jump out and change it before paying.
I also discovered that tuk-tuk drivers have diverse views when it comes to road rules - and when it comes to Lankan politics. One driver is unimpressed by the dynasty ruling SL and has noticed inflation and a widening wealth divide.  He commented that foreign investment is coming at a rate of knots (two huge developments being funded by Chinese investors) but that leads to higher prices that poorer locals can't manage.  Another driver was pleased to see the back of the last government and likes the strength of the current President.
Another driver was pleased that the tourist industry was on the way up and saw it as largely driven by foreign investment in hotels.  He was champing at the bit to charge white tourists more for their tuk-tuk.
The last driver knew all the names of the Australian cricket team and decided I wasn't much of an Aussie for not sharing his knowledge or enthusiasm.
The energy of Colombo is on the roads, in the markets, on the sides of streets and in the shops.  Loud, fast-paced.  Happy.  Not irritated or aggressive.  Just lively and on the move.  Keen for bigger hotels, more tourists, stronger economy and continued peacetime.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Day 2 - Part 2

I've got blisters on the soles of my shoes... feet.  Walked all day in humid heat.  Asked a few people about the weather: no one seemed to know the temperature, but one guy did suggest that Colombo was heating up like the rest of our planet Fireball.  Felt like it.
Being a white tourist in most developing countries really sucks: even if I wore a sari and died my hair I would sign-post money and ignorance, and be a target for con-artists.  I got through most of the day without losing out - just got tired and lazy towards the end and was almost taken for a ride to poverty.
I haven't felt at all unsafe.  Streets are busy.  People smile readily.  I have on my daggy look with my ultra-cool 'you-can't-touch-me' face. And everyone looks too hot and relaxed to give a girl trouble.
The first street I walked down this morning must have been the safest street in all of Asia.  Every five metres was a uniformed guard, standing to attention, with a long and lethal looking weapon.  I figured my best defense was to smile at them.  Most smiled back shyly.
Streets are a crazy mess of tuk tuks, old diesel buses with people hanging out of them, flashy cars and motor bikes.  Pedestrian crossings are critical to survival, but only if you are prepared to step out boldly and stare down the oncoming bus driver.
I watched a lady, dressed in a bright orange sari, walk the entire length of Rauddhaloka Mawatha into oncoming traffic while talking on her mobile.  Cars tooted, dodged her and she kept walking.  I stayed on the 3m wide footpath.
I stopped by the BMICH - an impressive building.  The guard asked me if I wanted to go inside.  I asked what I would find inside.  He said "Nothing".  So we laughed and I moved on.
The Independence Memorial Hall had a small basement museum where I tried to learn Lankan history, but an insistent and self-appointed young male guide drove me out - not before I gave him a tip for his unsolicited trouble.  He was informative, if opportunistic.
Through the Cinnamon Gardens to the National Museum.  A group of gardeners (who were not doing a lot of gardening) were hitting mangoes from a tree.  They gave me one: hard, unripe yet smelling divine.  Easiest to take, thank, keep walking and find a nearby bin.
The museum was quiet, dilapidated, politically correct and filled with school children (girls all in white, each with two long dark braids).  All very colonial.
Lots of bougainvillea-type plants and palms.  Women sweeping.  Men driving tuk tuks or standing around.  Children in school.  Remarkably few tourists.  I think I saw no more than a dozen foreigners all day.
More walking.  Getting tired and hot.  Took a tuk tuk to Galle Face Green where I let my guard down with the charlatans.
Fifty elephants he promised.  I laughed telling him I didn't believe him.  He looked hurt and I compromised.  He was trying to sell me a trip to a temple to see 50 elephants.  I had wanted to go to the temple, even with no elephants I could take the ride.  Except that he didn't stop at the temple.  He wanted to take me to see the Buddhist ceremony.  I asked how far and firmly asked that he pull over soon and I would find the ceremony and walk back to the temple.  All with a smile of course.  Safest to flatter and keep the peace: "You are very kind and a very good driver, but I think I will get out here."
He let me out and told me to walk across the park to find the ceremony.  Having just come from the park I knew there was no ceremony - but happy to be out, even if I was nowhere near the temple.
Then he charged me 1300 rupee.
I told him I was a tourist, but not silly and that sounded too expensive ($13AUD - the price of my ten hour bus trip to Jaffna).  He insisted, but I wasn't going to be taken for a white-girl fool.  I handed him 200 rupee ($2), smiled sweetly, told him it was all I had, thanked him and took off.
Home time.
Magical swim in glorious pool.  The hotel is new.  Owned by an Indian fellow I have discovered.  Foreign investors moving in to build cheaply ahead of what I am sure will be a speedy increase in tourism.
Meanwhile, I am being lavished with earnest and attentive hospitality; enjoying the new unheated yet 28 degree outdoor pool; and wondering how I can avoid being a remnant of colonial times.
At dinner, (I was too tired to go further than the hotel rooftop) the other guests ran down stairs when it rained.  I found a perch near the kitchen and enjoyed my fried chill broccoli dish while chatting to the staff.  Best I could do to build bridges over the blatant inequities.
In our chat, he told me I looked 32 (good one) and that he was friends with lots of Tamils and there were no lingering ethnic tensions at the community level from war-time.
I'm still not quite sure of the time.  But today feels over.



Day Two - Part I

iPhone says wrong time.  Digital clock in room says wrong time.  I'm on unknown time.
Classy hotel with classy breakfast.  I opted for Sri Lanka fare: watermelon juice, fruit platter, and coconut sambol (not to be confused with 'sambool' which is arabic for a penis that can't urinate).  All very good, fiery and a nice change from normal breakfast of ... nothing.
A copy in English of the Daily Mirror was a great intro to Lankan politics.  Today's headings included: "No one can attack SL" (now that a new airport has been opened); "Another Lankan monk assaulted in Chennai' (some suspected pro-LTTE cadres yesterday assaulted a Buddhist priest); 'GTF circulating doctored war crimes photos'.
This last one was the most interesting (although I did like the quote on the front page: "Aviation is not something new to Sri Lankans.  They have been aware of aviation long before Western nations thought of aviation, which is a prestige to the country" - President Mahinda Rajapaksa).
According to writer Supuin Dias, "The military said yesterday that the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) was circulating pictures of alleged war crimes."  The article goes on to explain that "The GTF is an organization that emerged in early 2010 as a result of an initiative by the British Tamil Forum and has its objective the establishment of Eelam or separate state in Sri Lanka on the pretext of fighting for justice for alleged war crimes against Tamils in Sri Lanka."
So begin the stories.
"The GTF which mostly consists of Tamil expatriates who have not visited Sri Lanka for many years," writes Dias.
Tamils are less than 10% of Sri Lanka's population.  Clearly there is an ongoing perception that Tamils threaten peacetime in Sri Lanka - not necessarily from within the country, but from outside where they can "obtain the support of a few local political personalities." (Dias).
Day one, and already the international politics seems both more complex and clearer.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Roaming to Lanka

Time travels and stalls when flying through the night.  I'm at Tuesday morning in Colombo having arrived in Lanka at 2am local time.
As is the way with travel, people have appeared with stories and offerings.  AJ took a seat next to me to Singapore: he is a dual citizen returning to Colombo to kick-start a travel company.  His advice about traveling to Lanka was welcome - and he has provided me with a list of must-see destinations and helpful contacts. A cool friendly guy.  A nice chance meeting.
The steamy heat in Colombo at 2am was confronting.  Cool towels and water on hand welcome.
It has been eerily quiet at all ports: Melbourne airport quiet and empty; Singapore deserted and Colombo asleep and peaceful.  The ten white-goods outlets at duty free in Colombo were open, however, in case I had forgotten my washing machine or refrigerator.
AJ pointed to the picture of the President under which we passed.  "You will hear stories," he said.  His cheerful smile suggested that I shouldn't be concerned.  He asked if I was a writer. "No. A mum," is an easier reply.
The road from airport to town is never a city's best side.  But it is often an indication of the underbelly of a region.  It was clear from the trip that there is a wide gulf in Lanka between wealthy and poor.  In a country in which the population of Australia lives in an area akin to Tasmania (check?), and which has undergone prolonged periods of civil war, this can't be surprising.
On the flight I had read commentary in the Times regarding (why is a brass band suddenly playing beneath my window?  Must find out) Obama's next four year projects.  The writer's view was that Obama needs to find the fault-line that divides two increasingly entrenched classes in the US.  But looking around at this ancient civilization that has passed through so many periods of leadership, it must be that entrenched class division is the trajectory of civil society.  Who is Obama to try to change it.
Out I go into the heat and noise of Colombo.  Brass band still going - could be musical cars honking - hard to tell.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Mission Sri Lanka

Tomorrow I am flying to Sri Lanka.  Alone.  Not many other travellers enjoy my kind of travel: no relaxing, lots of walking, lots of talking to strangers and a purposeful mission.  I am an ADHD traveller.  Bored with pool-side sleeps and up early ready to cram my day full of adventures ... and stuff.
This trip has a purpose.
For two years, I have been visiting and assisting an asylum seeker who has been in detention since December 2010.  He hasn't seen his family since 2005.  His family have never met his wife and daughter who are in Indonesia.
I am taking photos of him to his family and I will be bringing back photos and Sri Lankan coffee for him.
I am not sure what and who I will find at the address I have in my pocket.  Hopefully a family happy to see the framed photos I have packed and offer a traveller a cup of tea and a chat in whichever we can manage to communicate.
I will hopefully be able to post daily updates - not sure what coverage I will find in the areas to which I am travelling.
I know I will learn and see some amazing things - hope I can share them with you.
Rose