History Past and Present


We are finally back in the land of wifi though we haven’t got a successful password yet out of this unsatisfactory guest house in Ella. Even so it’s time to catch up with the journals and we’ll send this one way or another.

When last we posted we were in Anuradhapura, enjoying the ruins there and in Mihintale. For something completely different, we took a bus to Trincomalee north and east to the coast. Trinco used to be a major centre, as it has an excellent natural harbour where large ships can anchor. During British times it was a garrison town, and indeed both the Portuguese and the Dutch earlier made use of the large fort which still remains.

Trinco was a hotbed of violence during the end of the civil war however and has barely begun to rebound from that and from the effects of the tsunami. North of the town are some truly stunning beaches, miles and miles of white sand with scarcely a soul in evidence. No doubt this will be SL’s next big thing in terms of beach resorts as the Europeans love the beaches to the south and west which are much more crowded.

We took a bus from Anuradhapura, supposedly 4 1/2 hours, and since we got on at the depot we had a seat. Things quickly filled up as they always do here, until the aisles were packed impossibly tightly with standing passengers. This was a particularly tight bus for Doug, the only solution is for him to stick his knees into the aisle so he often ends up supporting the weight of some tubby SL lady’s belly on his knees. No one seems bothered. Half way into the journey, steam began to rise in such clouds from the radiator that the driver finally had to give in and stop the bus as he really couldn’t see where he was going. People going by on motorbikes were yelling at him, “Boiling!” but he hung on as long as he could. Finally it was evident that we were going no further. Everyone got off the bus, but since no English was spoken by the driver or the swamper and there were only 2 other tourists besides us (a hardy Dutch pair even older and grubbier than us) it was not clear whether we were waiting for the bus 4 hours behind us from Anurhadapura or whether there was another bus on the way. Suddenly a bus hove into view and everyone rushed forward in a throng, grappling with bags to try to get on first. There was no use hurrying however, as this bus was equally as packed as ours, and unbelievably the swamper managed to push our entire packed busload onto this bus.

Standing for two hours in a bus that full is an experience, but not one you would prefer to have every day. Eventually we arrived though and grabbed a tuk tuk from the bus station and headed the 18 kilometres to Nilaveli Beach where we planned to stay. When we stayed at the beautiful Villa Aralyia in Negombo the owners, Palitha and Stephanie suggested that if we went to Trinco we could stay in their guesthouse there, not on the beach but on a lagoon and a 10 minute walk to the beach. We decided to do that as it appeared the accommodation on Nilaveli Beach consisted of 2 expensive hotels on the beach or some distinctly grotty so called guesthouses back from the beach. As I said, this is the next big thing but it’s not developed yet.

We knew their place would be nice since the Villa Aralyia was so artistic — all polished concrete and exposed brick with extremely atmospheric bathrooms. Our tuk tuk driver had never heard of the place and was highly dubious but we had a little map on the back of their card so we found it. It was a little house set well back from the road in a grove of palm trees, with a lagoon visible on the far side. All was wired in like Fort Knox and the gate was locked. We called and halloooed to no avail, until finally a young man came pelting down from the house, key in hand. We told him we had a booking, but he refused to open the gate, he looked frantically confused actually terrified, and ran off again and came back with a cell phone which he handed to me. On the line was the manager of the Villa Araliya saying “So sorry madam, yes you have booking, give me back that boy…” Then he consented to open the gate and the tuk tuk driver, who was throwing a bird by this time — “This place no good, this boy very stupid, doesn’t speak Tamil…” –I only found out the significance of that later — reluctantly drove us in.

Doug was equally as exasperated as the tuk tuk guy, remember we had been several hours on the road in less than ideal traveling conditions and it was extremely warm, and he was all set to decamp but I insisted we take a look. More keys were found, the front doors were opened and we went in. It was absolutely beautiful — an anteroom full of gorgeous teak furniture with window seats to read in, and the bedroom was gorgeous. Polished concrete floor with teak inlays in it to provide a pattern, colour washes used on the walls of the bathroom which was vast, a huge bed (also concrete but with an actual spring filled mattress) swathed in an immense mosquito net which we turned out not to need. I insisted we stay and Doug calmed down. It turned out to be great, very quiet. We were the only guests, in fact they hardly ever have guests what with the locked gates and all, they only allow people to book through them in Negombo. The bird life around the lagoon was amazing. What a country for us to have developed an interest in birds. I could write a whole journal on the birds alone.

The Nilaveli Beach Resort was just a 10 minute walk across the road, very swish, and they allowed non guests to use all facilities for a couple of dollars, which we did one day. We walked and walked on the beach, swimming every once in a while to cool off, though the breakers precluded actual length swimming, they were not that strong and it was so nice to bob about. We spent part of one day in Trinco looking at the historic stuff and checking out the town, going to and fro by bus, amazing crush. The thing about these buses is that they are virtually free — for a four hour journey we pay about 50 cents each. We save so much money we can upgrade our accommodation, at least that’s my theory. Though I have to say the beautiful Surya Lagoon was a boutique hotel for guesthouse price.

When we went to Trinco, we got a tuk tuk guy to take us all around the harbour and to a few places in the town. He had a most interesting tsunami story. The place where he parks his tuk tuk is by the gate of the old Dutch fort, right on the harbour. That day, someone hired him to go 15 kilometres inland, they got in and left, and 5 minutes later the tsunami struck. He left Trinco lazing in the heat as it always is, and returned half an hour later to find total devastation. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Fishing boats up on the land, the bus station inundated and buses lying everywhere, but the water had already receded, so it was as if it had just spontaneously occurred. He immediately rushed to his home, and fortunately the water had stopped 100 meters before his house and his family was all fine. 14 minutes it took for it to come and go, and well over 100,000 died. A waiter at the hotel told me he had never touched the sea again. Many people think it was a punishment for the war, a message that they had to make peace. If that’s what it was, it took another 5 years for peace to happen.

When I got back to Kandy, to the lovely Sharon Inn, where Sue the host seemingly had decided I was her new best friend, we were telling her about Trinco and she said she would like to buy property on the east coast but she doesn’t dare. Why? Because Singhalese are starting to go in and buy up property in what has always been Tamil territory and for which they fought tooth and nail during the war and resentment is high. But Faesz is not Singhalese I said, No he’s Muslim, and the Tamils tried to get the Muslims (who hail from many different lands and came to SL 250 years ago as traders) to join in the struggle on their side and the Muslims, who are pragmatic business people said they wanted to remain neutral and therefore became everybody’s enemy. That explained the tuk tuk driver being so angry that the boy at the guesthouse did not speak Tamil, and Sue thought it explained the fence and their unwillingness to take in passing guests as Palitha is Singhalese. Nothing is quite settled yet I guess.

As a sidebar, Sue who has been an expat her entire life (father a German engineer who never lived in Germany, she has 4 step mothers…) and who has lived in Sri Lanka for 25 years, had an interesting story about the Nilaveli Beach Hotel. It was inundated by the tsunami but rebuilt, only to have the fighting blow up again in that area. Sue and a friend went over there to stay (she is very gutsy, she survived 2 bomb blasts over the years). During the night insurgents came and demanded the hotel’s food and supplies. The manager refused, saying he had to feed his guests, so they shot him dead. As Sue remarked, “I would have been happy to miss my breakfast if the poor man had survived, he shouldn’t have argued.” After too few days, we set off again on a bus for Polonarewa, a 12th century city very well preserved by being lost in the jungle until fairly recently. All these sites are UNESCO sites and therefore very pricey, but are consequently being very well restored. We used bicycles to ride around the ruins, which though a bit hot, was the ideal way to see them, and to be able to imagine the streets as they were with a royal palace, sacred areas and 2 large monasteries. We were off the city streets the whole time which was pleasant and relaxing. I had a minor (for me not him) spat with a motorbike while on my bicycle in Anaradhapura and prefer to give the beasts as wide a berth as possible. The ruins were set on a large “wewa” (what they call the man made lakes these kings loved to build) and it was lovely strolling beside it in the evening watching everyone swimming and washing and observing yet more lovely birds. I hardly bat an eye over a sedately swimming pelican now.

As a side note, our guest house there was in distinct contrast with the previous one — the Leesha Guesthouse cost about $12 and was our most basic yet, but perfectly adequate since it was new and the bathrooms still worked. Three bare concrete rooms which had been the family’s house until they decided to make a guesthouse and moved into a building under construction (no doors yet) next door. Quite fun actually as we shared a table for dinner (all the guesthouses cook here as restaurants are not really part of the culture) each evening with a different set of young backpackers and enjoyed it immensely. This business of going “midrange” does put you with a more mature crowd though there was an Italian guy at the Leesha much older than we are. The age of some of these European backpackers does give us hope that we have a few more years in us.

After this it was back to Kandy so we could catch the famous hill country train to Ella. More to follow about that. Til next time, your happy, elderly travelers, Carol and Doug.

Sent from my iPad


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