Once Upon A Time In Sri Lanka
In 1907, a British Sri Lankan by the name of Amelius Beauclerk Fyers would sail from the shores of Sri Lanka to Australia to marry his wife and begin a new life in the shaky isles of New Zealand. In 1943, a young Kiwi Pilot by the name of Ian Leahy would die in tragic circumstances as his military plane crashed while on take-off. Both of these events, would forever tie my family to this island. And now, on the 100th anniversary of my grandparents birth, I would be the first member of my family to visit the island which was home to my family for two generations.
At school, young AB Fyers was sent to Guernsey in the UK to complete his higher education. It was here that he excelled at cricket and became well-known as a proficient player in circles. After High School, AB Fyers
returned to Sri Lanka, a country that was his first love where he began a successful career as a land surveyor with his majesty’s royal army. Like many ancestors before him, he was born into a wealthy family and led a non-eventful life. By 1907, he had fallen in love with a Melbourne socialite, Annie, and moved to Australia before eventually settling in the rural North Waikato region of New Zealand. He never returned to Sri Lanka.
In 2016, in commemoration of the amazing achievement of my grandparents turning 100 (my grandmother passed just 18 months shy of this monumental achievement), I headed for the island. I was there to find traces of my family history, and to visit the headstone of the brother my grandmother never saw again after WWII. This was a chance to learn about the country that my family loved as they left it behind.
Welcome to Sri Lanka
As the plane came into Sri Lanka, the aerial view of the island could only be described as breathtakingly romantic. Tin-roofed shacks lay like matchstick figurines against the lime green serenity of the tropical jungle and rich rice-field farmland. It was 3pm on a Monday, after a long haul flight from Europe, my body needed a rest after accumulating what could only be described as a horrendous virus the day before.
The airport was a blend of Hawaii meets Asia. Swish palm fronds decorated the cement trails while a bosom of taxi drivers burst through the doors like a whirlpool of flies chasing a fresh carcass. Each insisting of being your personal taxi driver, each as desperate to get you to part with your money as much as the last – this would become one of the travesty’s of visiting a place like Sri Lanka, the constant barrage of mono
tony: “Would you like a TukTuk?”. Eventually I did succumb to a taxi, which luckily for me was not over priced and the driver was wonderfully adept at finding the shortest way to my hotel.
My first day was a short trip, 30 minutes away to the seaside town of Negombo. The capital city of Colombo was 1.5 hours to the south and after an arduous journey, it was wise to stay close to the airport for the evening.
Negombo was a typical suburban village. The beach was private and grassy, it left very little to the imagination. The town was a broad avenue of tourist restaurants with Asian, Seafood and Western delicacies. The bars were catered towards Europeans mostly with a scattering of travel-loving American and Aussies thrown in for good measure. Russians too were a sight that you would get used to as they make a healthy percentage of travelers to Sri Lanka.
As I could barely eat, I retired to my room for the evening. As much as the excitement was alluring me to explore my new surroundings, so too was the deathly reminder of my virus.
Colombo and a Date with History
The following day, I took a train from the local Negombo Train station towards the capital, Colombo. Over the next few weeks I would become accustomed to the slow pace at which Sri Lankan trains travel. This is not a nation for traveling around rapidly, it’s one that lends itself to a slower more ornately mellow pace of life. It is an island after all, even if it is densely populated.
In Colombo, I would be spending the next two nights with a Dutch Couchsurfer, Alexander. He had relocated with his company from Kiev and had spent the past two years in Sri Lanka. Luckily for me, Alex was an excellent itinerary planner who aided me in developing the best travel itinerary for viewing the island.
Over the course of two days I would venture into the heart of this city and get to know it and this country at
grassroots level. I would meet with a part of my history that would have a profound affect on me, as well as sample the daily life of suburban Colombians. From the dusty paved streets, to the litter-plagued shores of the local beach Colombo held every ounce of fascination that one could imagine, but ultimately, it wasn’t why I was here.
The connection with my great-uncle was something incredibly enriching. It helped me to link my heritage to this nation, not only that but seeing the dedication and commitment the gardeners had to preserving this slice of history gave me intense pride and gratitude to their accomplishment. It was as if even though Ian had not his family here, he was still being well taken care of.
On day three, it was off to venture north to the Tamil homeland of Jaffna.
Jaffna – The Land That Time Forgot
In recent years, Sri Lanka has undergone tremendous hardship. For over 30 years, it was the site of one of the worst civil wars and genocides of our time. Nowhere is that more painfully presented then in the far north of the island at Jaffna. At just 3 meters high, this flat plateau barely peaks out of the water. A long scale of empty brown and shimmering green merges with the aqua marine reflection of the sea. Islands burst from the sea, but with barely a whisper against the harsh Indian Ocean sun.
After a long slow ride coasting through Sri Lanka’s countryside between Colombo and Jaffna, the sun begins to pass over the horizon but not before the remnants of this ancient land are brought to life through the naked scars of littered brick walls, holes that penetrate homes and taped houses. There are still vivid reminders of what once existed and is still firmly ingrained in the minds of locals.
Jaffna offers very little to see. Tourism isn’t a grand economic booster to the region. Many of the tourists that come to Sri Lanka aren’t looking to part with their cash here. It’s too far north, the beaches aren’t popular enough or there isn’t enough time to spend wandering the dusty streets or venturing off into the empty farmlands that surround. But Jaffna is something worth seeing, experiencing and breathing in its saltwater air. There’s a magic to this realm, a painful reminder of war and of the atrocities of nature.
The next day I took a private TukTuk tour to get under the surface of the region. I wanted more than just a bird’s eye view of the region, I wanted to see what it was that made the Tamil so resilient, how they survived one of the worst massacres in Asia’s history and how they came out the otherside.
For as far as the naked eye could see, land stretched as though it were pizza dough rolled out on a flat wooden board. The long gray stretch of road ahead of us was dotted with holes, and locals animated in daily routines from tending to the bountiful field crops to the gentle sway of riding bicycles along the line between the dust swept emptiness of the roadside and the long forgotten tar-sealed road.
Postcards envelope my mind as we cross the countryside. We take a turn, adjust our direction and cross through a village filled with tin shacked houses, little roadside shops selling snacks, and other necessities. As we draw our way through the village, it starts to become apparent what makes this region so spectacular and unique: grandiose statues of gold deities reach up to the sky, symbols of an ancient Hindu Goddess draped in ocean blue, with hints of red. An esoteric color co-ordination but one that represents centuries of tradition.
From the first fishermen who settled on these white sand shores during the iron age, were of course firm believers in Hindu faith, however over time a wave of new settlers added cohesive layers to the landscape. The Moor tribe of Morocco were seafarers who during their heyday of excursions traveled freely across the open sea of the Indian Ocean and often made trade with the local Sinhalese majority, who by all accounts were Buddhists during trade among a predominantly Muslim crowd. This lead to one of the world’s most multi-denominational nations, in which: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam harmoniously bind to a cohesive structure of euphonious repose.
Through the ancient walls of the temple, it’s clear to see the calmness that religion inflicts on the Tamil of the region. It’s a respite from the hardships one faced during the war and genocide of a people. Here, they could escape and find a harmonic balance between their realities and their ambitions for peaceful resolve. The over-reaching arches of gold-tinted arcs and the sweeping panoramic allurement of the sanctuary with potted flowers and inch long soft grass, radiated a sense of solitude and within me drew a deeper cohesion of what life was like for these people now.
Further along, a Mosque sat on the roadside. Small, by all accounts aged. We passed by, a reminder of the cross-pollination of faith and the interwoven intimacy of it. The buzz-buzz of the combustion engine and plume of white smoke formed a haze. It was a reminder of the modern world, but there were a fine line between the two in this region.
Further up the road, we came to a sanctuary of sorts. A water hole, popular with locals. Nilavarai is wrapped in a warm layered coat of historic fable. The bottomless fresh water hole has many connections to the God Rama, a reincarnation of Vishnu. It is said that his wife, Seetha, upon return to India was overcome by thirst. Her husband then proceeded to shoot an arrow into the earth, up came fresh water, born was the well.
Today it lays claim as the site of a vigil by pilgrims who come to give praise at the local temple and to pay their respects at the site of the well. Nestled from the road by a fence and a few buildings, its significance lays at peril to the countryside surrounding it, yet its value runs so much deeper as a source of constant embodiment to the community.
Towards Point Pedro, our first major destination, we cross farm fields with grazing cattle, small ancient villages, and empty space of flat undiluted landscapes with pristine patches of forest and tropical fruit trees. If the north can lay claim to one thing, it can lay claim to this: Jaffna has the most incredibly delicious mango’s you will ever have the privilege of sampling. Juicy, succulent like fresh passionfruit, ripe or slightly less ripe, their divine flavors ripple through you with such intense euphoria, it can only be described as a moment of true satisfaction.
Point Pedro is a sleepy little town that links Sri Lanka with the Indian Ocean and is the most Northern point of the island. Idle bays of white sand overlap the crystal clear waters of the Indian and give glimpses of the natural beauty of the region. In recent times, it has played a pivotal role in the regions tourist development but on December 26, 2004 it was a different story.
While in the midst of war between the Tamil and Sinhalese-led government forces, the island lay claim to a siege from the ocean when the Boxing Day Tsunami struck. The gravitating force of the water swept one kilometer upland and decimated the region. Coconut palms were swept away by torrential currents, homes were collapsed like cardboard boxes, and families were separated by the sheer force of mother nature. While Sri Lanka received most of its damage to the south and east of the island, it was no doubt that what occurred here was more than just a slap on the wrist to the folks who already were in the midst of a war.
We set about traveling along the coast as the heat of the day bore down on us. From the sanctity of the temperate morning air, the burning radiation of the midday sun took its toll. The Tuk Tuk driver introduced me to snippets of devastation from the tsunami before we pulled up another street in a town where we headed for a tourist resort. From the onslaught, the surrounding military base gave no indication of what we were about to find, but pulling into the carpark, it was clear that this was no ordinary world for the locals.
Sun-kissed tourists overlapped with the local staff as they endured countless hours of staring out at sun-drenched ocean views while sipping cocktails or purging on local fresh tea.
Next up, would define my day. My driver had heard of a secret bunker hidden in the grounds of the local hospital. To the outside world, this could be any developing world hospital. Dilapidated, in need of a fresh lick of paint to hold together its tired concrete walls. In serious need of government funding to survive and probably teetering on the brink of supplies and heavily under-resourced, nothing I hadn’t seen before on my journey. but hidden at the back of the complex was something haunting, something that would reveal that futility of war.
The complex was dotted with Nurses’ homes, office buildings and security outposts. We would stop for directions, and every stage would lead us closer to our destination. Finally, it was within sight by way of a helpful guard who are introduced us to the bunker.
Lying under the earth, a world away from the hospital above was an intricate labyrinth of tunnels and long-forgotten rooms of rusty iron gurneys and aged implements. The bunker was carefully built and held in secrecy for many years. Built during the 30 year war, the labyrinth of rooms and tunnels housed up to 200 patients at a time. Soldiers, who had limbs ripped apart from mortar shrapnel, families who were victims of gunfire and intense aerial bombings, ordinary Tamil who were caught in the crossfire of a rogue government state.
The Tamil-funded hospital was made with generous donations from families aboard who had found safe passage into the West. Families who still had connections back home. They also supported the retaliation by sponsoring the Tamil-led contingent to purchase weapons that would protect them from a violent upheaval. The hospital now lay as a ghost, like something out of a Stephen King novel, down to the eerie decor, it had a sense of hope when the outside world was failing this ancient tribe.
Scattered tools, brittle stone walls were all that remained of what was once a sacred place of unity. Perhaps I will never have the chance to meet the people who risked their lives to save so many, but to know that bonified heroes existed goes along way to restoring our faith in humanity as a collective unifying force.
Along the way, we passed a school where children gathered to sing. One of a few rare Christian churches that existed here from the time of colonial British rule, and another to add to the copious minor faiths that existed in Sri Lanka.
We sampled the popular Kerramale Pool with views of the sea, we wandered through ornate temples where centuries of tradition greeted marvels of human creation via intricate Hindu temples and ancient Islamic mosques. We took time out to wander through the grounds of a traditional Buddhist monastery. It tapped into a spiritual realm, a freedom of the mind as I wandered through the landscapes of summer cut grass and marveled at the site of the centralized temple.
We stopped by the decimated site of the leader of the Tamil uprising, Velupillai Prabhakaran’s residence where he had built a bunker was now reduced to rubble. Killed in gun fire during the final days of the civil war in 2009. The grounds stand as a testament to the charisma of Prabhakaran and the legacy he left on his people. To the outside world, he was considered a violent and oppressive bandit, but to the Tamil people, he was a source of inspiration and hope from the chains of oppression that had they been subjected to for generations. The loss of 100,000’s lives seems indescribable as you walk through the grounds. From the family bunker which housed his wife and children, to the lavish grounds that once were home to the leader, every piece of history now lies like shards of glass lost to time and with only the oral stories to pass down through the ages, a passage that’s as deep as it is dark in Sri Lanka’s history.
West of Jaffna lies a scattering of small flat islands that form a chain. Connected to the mainland by two bridges built after the war, the islands are now home to local Tamil villagers who sustain their existence by fishing between Sri Lanka and India. It is here that the Indian sub-continent lies within a few kilometers of the island and the centuries old trade route still exists.
Nothing more than a series of small clusters of homes and sparsely populated fields, the island group offers tourists a chance to see some of the lesser developed sites. A local beach that we stopped at before returning to Jaffna was popular with locals but had no tourists. As a day trip from Jaffna, it was one of the closer beaches to town and during the holiday periods would be populated with locals from Colombo or further south. The steady afternoon sun was preparing to set for the day, when a crowd gathered around to lap up the last rays of sunlight.
A group of children played in the sand, building sandcastles and dipping their feet into the soothing waters of the Palk Strait. This idyllic scene was reminiscent of my own blissful childhood when long hot days in the sand would be met with a soak afterwards in the hotel swimming pool as though I had somehow adopted fins and become a sea creature. Life had turned around a whole 180, here the war was a distant but painful memory. Construction was slow, the people still poor but there was hope – something they had been dreaming about for a long time.
The drive back felt long, as we careered along empty country roads, as the dark seeped into the sky and blanketed the blue with a coat of black sprinkled with a scattered of stars, there was an ever-present harmony to my journey home.
Safely back in Jaffna, I began to take a walk through the center to find something to eat. At night, Jaffna shuts down. The lively vein of the city, filters into a silence as families gather around the kitchens and retell stories of their day, while the gentle sizzling of the wood fire pot cooks their favorite meals.
I finally found a restaurant near to my family hotel. A local tourist restaurant with Sri Lankan and Tamil affair. The selection is impressive for a country with what outwardly appears to be limited pallets. My theory was proven wrong that evening as I ate an astronomical amount of flavored rice with a Sri Lankan influence. My gluttonous delight would serve me for a few meals as I took in the surroundings, a couple of locals dining out for a romantic dinner, a group of foreigners celebrating an evening on holiday, and a small group of guys who were experiencing a dilemma about what to get.
For my final day in Jaffna, I wanted to explore the town a little more and in particular the Dutch Fort which sat so prominently on the coast. Surrounded by dry, caked dirt wasteland, the Fort was a marvel in Dutch engineering from the 17th Century when the Dutch Navy set up here.
A solid stone wall rose up from the parched soil and overlooked the calm sea with a high degree of authority. Inside there was a sense of what life was like inside the Fort. History had vanquished many of the buildings which once stood testament to the value of community, but nature had entrusted the treated soil with shrubbery and a scattering of deciduous trees. Summer spruced up the inner-fort and brought it to life. From atop the walls, a panoramic view of the city lay in wait. Rows of receded houses, barren wasteland and a small park liberated the grounds.
A modern road looped between the fort and the coast, complete with a coastal trail to the new bridge. Entering the Fort, you pass by a couple of local roadside stalls selling snacks and drinks to the tourists. Lanky grass swept under the grains of sand and ruddy crumbled rock animate a scene from Mad Max or any other post-apocalyptic film. Spend long enough wandering through the grounds and you begin to lose sight of what it is now, to what it once was. History is a staunch advocate for helping to remind us of that.
On the June 1, 1981, an organised mob of Sinhalese rampaged through the town, their sights set on the town library. Prior to the events of that evening, it contained over 97,000 cataloged books making it one of the largest libraries in Asia. After that night, it was burned to ashes and left a cultural heritage in ruin.
In 1982, the building was rebuilt only to be destroyed once more three years later in a hail of bullets. The bullet-laden building was abandoned until the civil war began to subside.
Today, the fully restored building houses a collection of over 25,000 books but unfortunately some rarer versions have been lost to time. It may be a shell of its former self but a wander through its doors opens up to the fact that this institution played a prominent role in preserving the history of the Tamil’s rich heritage.
As with any city, the best parts lie within wandering the streets of the main routes and into the suburbs. Feeling how ordinary residents go about their day, and in Jaffna this was no exception.
Strolling through Jaffna’s quaint neighborhoods you get a sense of the mix of colonial versus oriental flavors. Hastily erected huts of iron and concrete, some nestled with gardens of fruit and vegetables, embodied the pulse of the city. An arioso tone imbued between culture and urbanization. Children rode heavy Chinese-produced bicycles down the street, dogs roamed freely, stopping occasionally to sniff disregarded litter and the wily screams of a baby echoed from behind the concrete walls of a shanty home.
The city’s central core was bustling hub for buses and entrepreneurial sidewalk stalls, there was a lively sentiment to the value of pausing to absorb it all. The main street rode a long straight line for miles, at some point I would meet with the other edge of town but its pursuit was long and engaging as I crossed through slightly more upbeat suburbs of low-level apartment blocks and straddled the pavement of crumbling white stone blocks as dust seeped in between pulling them apart and tossing them naked into the air.
A constant roar of combustion engines and horns honking drowned out the subliminal nature of my walk. Naked spaces of land lay bare to be converted into some modernized development. Heavy machines awaited the command of their masters as they tore through the soft ground and opened up bare patches of dirt. Bamboo poles staked their sharp ends into the earth as they made a functional yet dangerous attempt at scaffolding.
Jaffna met some between ancient and modern, a sleepy little town but with its eyes firmly fixed on an exciting future as economic fortune and fresh tourist dollars began to come into play. There was hope as it sought to break the stigma attached. Although barely a decade had passed since the civil war exchanged its last gunfire and a little more since the tragic events of 2004, Jaffna was turning over a fresh leaf. It was bold and resourceful, peaceful and tranquil, and full of ample opportunity.
Trincomalee – Sri Lanka’s East Coast Treat
The following day, I found myself wandering around the actively engaging local bus station where I would take a local bus to the seaside resort of Trincomalee. Traveling by local bus throughout Sri Lanka is one of those rare joys that everybody should at least try once. For starters, it is extraordinarily slow, on the other it can seem like you forever going to become roadkill as the overly-confident driver spins the wheel in a never-ending weave from left-to-right as he veers the bus around sharp or curving corners as though he has to set an example for dramatic overkill.
The bus from Trincomalee was as crowded as they come. This would become a feature of an roadtrip by bus in this country, as the clerk would swing out the door as we passed by unsuspecting locals who would be encouraged to take a bus trip on the already densely crowded bus. Although nobody rode the roof like they would in India, the fact that every inch of space was packed so densely lead to exhilaration nonetheless.
The first part of our journey was boring from a scenic point of view, but the second half was more livelier as we careered towards the sunshine of the East Coast.
Another staple of Sri Lankan buses is the ambitious Snack Seller, who clamors onto the bus at even the most remote spot with the cackling cry of the repetitive monotone voice requesting if anyone would like to purchase his snacks. The range was limited to a mix of flavored nuts, or bhuja mix, to fresh chunks of mouth-watering mango or pineapple.
Highways don’t exist in this part of the country, so a journey that would ordinarily take 1-2 hours in a more developed country with better
infrastructure. In Sri Lanka, it can take 4-6 hours. Although the roads are better in condition than in some countries in the region, they are not designed for mass traffic or heavy duty care.
Finally, after a long bus ride, the sweet salty air of the coast cruised in beside us. I had arrived in Trincomalee.
Trincomalee is a medium town, and one of the largest on the island’s East Coast. With a population of 100,000, it was the commercial hub of the North East Coast. For this leg of my journey, I would be staying just north of the town at Nilaveli. A narrow coastal and residential strip that hosted a few boutique hostels and tourist hotels. Being June, collective bargaining can get you an excellent deal on accommodation here and I was able to bargain my room at my hotel down to almost half-price (From 2500SLR to 1500SLR).
Down a small side road, it was not only quiet but comfortable all the same with the perfect proximity to the beach and local restaurants. The quiet beach was a mecca for foreigners in the peak season, but in the off-peak early days of summer was calm and collectively peaceful for a few days to relax.
Trincomalee offers a few day activities for those seeking something a little more than the beach. From diving, to whale watching and from day trips into the center where the old town boasts some impressive colonial and oriental architecture, there is something for everyone.
Nilaveli Beach is not your quintessential beach resort. Sure, you’ll find the deck chair bars, and water sport activities but that’s where the similarities die with other typical beach resorts. This beach is real, it’s microcosm of the real Sri Lanka. From the gloss of the tourist brochures, you dig a little deeper and you’ll find the dirt and grit that makes Sri Lanka real. From the trash that litters the sand, to the cow dung, this reveals the imperfections of what you find when you travel outside the tourist resorts.
As I wandered down the beach one day, I found myself at the northern tip of the beach strip where I found a shanty town lying in an enclave at the river mouth. A community of residents who spent their days fishing on the beach, while subsisting within a mile of the tourist area.
The gentle lapping of the water to sand, that’s what most people conjure up when they think of a beach and here was no exception. But imagine sharing your bathing spot with a bovine beast and you’ll be a little more closer to the truth. While cows bathed under rickety timber thatches, I bathed under the gentle waves of the Indian Ocean sun. So enticing that it was, my engrossment would pay the cost as the sun beat against my skin burning it to a dark brown pigment.
While the water boasts temperatures in the 20’s (70’s for Fahrenheit), the air temperature can swiftly reach the mid-30’s by the early morning. By 11am, it’s too hot to be outside and the idea of cooling waters is something best left for the latter part of the day when the sun reaches the horizon.
There are a few restaurants that tie themselves to the main road north. A collective of local and western flavors serving fish and Sri Lankan inspired dishes. The fish is either a local sea variety, but can also be a freshwater river version to. The sweet tropical fruit is plentiful here as you walk past banana palms and mango trees.
After a couple of days of savoring the goods that Trincomalee had to offer, it was off for a day trip to visit the world renowned town of Dambulla.
Dambulla – Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Heart
While most of Sri Lanka left me inspired and wanting more, Dambulla came to be the exact opposite. This would be the town I would come to despise, and for good reason: Tourism had destroyed the prestige of what this town could be. It left it bitter and resentful, and apart from a few touristy sites aimed at coachline tours, there was nothing in this town to warrant spending more than a day.
My afternoon trip was to spent traversing the lion’s rock, however I was let down and found myself wasting a good hour of travel to only be turned away due to my clothing. Had they warned us that there was a dress code, I am sure things would have been different. The constant barrage of greedy, eyes suckling at your presence as you walked up to the caves also left me feeling undesirable towards this place.
The famous Buddha Foot that overlooks the breathtaking landscape was also another tourist gimmick. Something I would not partake in, instead I took a walk around the periphery admiring the freshly manicured gardens and landscaped roadsides as well as the monkeys with their debauchery afoot. At ten times the regular price for foreigners I decided against taking the stairway up the rock.
As there is no indication of where the Buddha foot is, you will have to keep an eye on other tourists getting off the bus or check with your driver as there are no signs that really indicate its presence.
To Be Continued…