Sri Lanka 2016 – part two
When the train to Jaffna pulled up at the Colombo Fort station I was initially taken aback at the Spartan nature of my second class compartment. But moments later, after I had found my seat, stored my larger bag on the overhead rack, found a place for my water bottle and settled into a good seat by a window with an unobstructed view, I began to get excited about the journey ahead. The excitement was enhanced by the arrival of a bunch of young, fit looking guys who occupied the seats next to and in front of me. Naively comparing the sight to a similar one in Australia I assumed they belonged to a sporting outfit, possibly a football team. Why not ask? I picked the friendliest looking chap who smilingly replied they were a navy contingent. I twirled my mistake around in my mind, chuckling inside at my assumption, naïve for that part of the world. From then on the group took on a different character to the one formed by my first impressions. A casual arrogance was detectable in most of them. They occupied seats which were not theirs and asked other passengers, including me, to look after seats they temporarily vacated. Some of them smiled at me, friendliest amongst them the one I engaged in conversation at the start of the journey. From the openly displayed affection towards him it was apparent he was well liked. He sat on laps, locked arms in embrace, sometimes engaged in light, affectionate touching of cheeks. It was nice to see. Maybe love and affection are encouraged in the armed forces of Sri Lanka.
The journey was noisy, eventful. Half an hour from the start the train shuddered to a halt. Passengers scurried to the doors and windows and soon afterwards disembarked to have a closer look. The navy boys were perhaps quickest to jump off and make their way towards a gathering crowd. It turned out a cyclist had been hit by the train. I stayed put, determined to avoid what could turn out to be a gory spectacle. Presently the train departed. I noticed a mangled bicycle beside the tracks. The navy boys huddled together in the seat in front of me to look at photos one of them had taken, presumably of the accident. I studiously looked out of the window to avoid even an accidental glance in their direction.
For the unprepared, the only available food was that peddled by vendors who walked up and down the aisles uttering sounds that were once intelligible to me. The aromas were unmistakeable. I purchased a bag of mini vadais, garnished with deep fried dried chillies and sliced raw onion, a delicious snack. I augmented my meal with dried fruit purchased in Bangkok. Diesel fumes penetrated every fibre of clothing, every pore and I’m sure every orifice on the train. No one seemed to mind. I didn’t either. In fact, I wasn’t even conscious of it until I entered my Jaffna hotel room and removed my clothes.
The seven hour journey did not drag until the last 20 kilometres as the train chugged along the southern rim of the peninsula in the darkness, inching, so it felt, towards Jaffna. I followed its progress on google maps. It did not make the train go faster. I would love to share that journey with a kindred spirit.
I thought Jaffna town was a microcosm of Colombo. The main street running through the town is a hive of activity. People going about their business thread their way between parked cars, trishaws, vespas and the odd motorcycle, and sometimes moving vehicles too, which seem to always travel slow enough to take evasive action. pedestrians seemed less likely to be mowed down by traffic, and maybe even if they were the gentler impact would leave them with little more than a few bruises. Despite less pavement to walk on I felt safer than walking along Colombo streets. Lining both sides of the street are shops and cafes. Many of the shops along the main drag appeared to sell dry foods like dried chillies and dry fish. Jaffna is famous for its dry fish, a delicacy throughout Sri Lanka. A small piece of dry fish on the side of the plate gives a rice and curry meal a lift, although many would argue it is a lift hardly needed. Lovers of Sri Lankan food might consider the customary sambols, dry fish and pickles superfluous additions to an already delicious meal, but they can be enjoyed for themselves. The tastes are intense, glorious, addictive.
On the surface Jaffna did not create much of an impression on me, but on a deeper level, I felt a form of love, satisfaction that I’d been there, living, feeling, breathing my empathy for Tamil people, making it a tangible thing, not just a memory or an abstract feeling, or a vague recollection.
I don’t belong in Sri Lanka. I have moved on, and my place of refuge is here in Melbourne. I will enjoy returning to the land of my birth, happily reliving the heat, the dirt, the smells, the chaos, the joyfully relentless hot, spicy food at every turn, at every meal. But, the life style, patterns and rhythms with which I identify, with which I am in step, belong to a different world, a world to which I always long to return after being away for a while. Maybe if I burnt bridges I could carve out a life for myself in Sri Lanka, but there is nothing in my present life I wish to escape from. Even if my assessment of Sri Lanka is clouded by prospects of loneliness and the rather repugnant Colombo snobbery, I don’t foresee ever living in Sri Lanka again.
Most people in Sri Lanka appear to accept their lot (the Colombo elite are a tiny minority). When life is a struggle, survival is front and centre and crowds out everything else. This is the pattern of life immediately evident; nothing suggests aspiration; everything seems to be about survival.
Classmates and others of my acquaintance are operating at very high levels in government and commercial echelons. While it does not enhance my understanding of the workings of governments and commerce, it makes those institutions less remote and unfathomable, even accessible to some degree, and definitely less foreboding. This has no practical value for me. I think all it does is impart some humanity and fallibility to the upper echelons of Sri Lankan society. The very rich still remain somewhat elusive. I cannot latch onto how they think or how they view the world around them. However, as with the high achievers and operators, I feel I can hold my own with them, to a greater degree than earlier in my life, but I don’t think I can ever be a part of their world.
I am slightly offended by extreme opulence in poor countries. I can understand why revolutions occur to fast track the creation of more equitable societies. A meal at Cinnamon Grand would cost the monthly wage of a clerk, and there are locals wealthy enough to patronise such places regularly. I think the very rich in poor countries are less compassionate than their counterparts in wealthy countries. Maybe they have to be, surrounded by deprivation and starvation. If they were moved, you’d think they would use some of their wealth to address the stark inequalities they can see at every turn. I guess they did not amass their wealth from being charitable.
I did not want to be a tourist in Sri Lanka; it is the country of my birth and my heritage, no matter that three quarters of it can be traced back to other countries a few hundred years earlier. I am happy I went to Jaffna, because it was a tangible, touristy action, evidence that I did not sit around and twiddle my thumbs. It was done, in part, to silence those with the dreaded question on the tips of their tongues, “what did you do in Sri Lanka, just hang around in Colombo, how many times did you see friends and relatives, what did you do the rest of the time, really?” and thinking, “sounds like he wasted his holiday.”
Sri Lanka and my family are inextricable from each other. Even my enjoyable, adventurous and fulfilling moments were touched by gloom.