Rebel Country

Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
Trip End Nov 18, 2002

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Saturday, March 9, 2002

-- The DMZ

They came to the window of the van and talked in Sinhalese whispers to Affan. The sentry was nervous, it was obvious.

"It is not safe here, any moment something could happen. When you go back, tell others not to come"

"Let's go Affan, let's get the hell out of here! Just drive..."

All the time while planning my trip I had told myself that I would go to any country as long as I wasn't "unwanted" there. It was now clear that there were some people in Vavurnya that didn't want me there...

Hold that thought, let me get back to that... first, the wedding day.

-- Wedding Day - Getting there

The daily life of Affan and his family was much like most North Americans, insanely hectic.

Leaving Mirissa Beach, where I had been soaking up the sun for a few days, we picked up the kids from school, zipped out to run some errands then stopped by the bank... today Affan was unusually hurried, it was his friend's wedding day and many things needed to be done before the 3 hour ride to Colombo for the night's festivities.

Zipping down side streets, cars passing us on the wrong side of the road, tuk tuks honking their horns constantly and driving madly, all seemed normal in the safety of Affan's mini van, until the bubble burst.

CRACK! Screech!!

A tuk tuk speeding by the van had hit our side mirror and ripped it clean off of the vehicle. Affan stepped out of the van into the traffic to inspect the damage.

"No problem" Affan calmly told the tuk tuk driver while examining the dismembered mirror he was now in his hands like a wounded bird. As if nothing had just happened, he jumped back into the van and sped of, back into the whirlwind of traffic. Within the hour a friend would crazy glue the mirror back on for us. "No problem"

Passing overturned trucks, vans laying in the ditch and busses strewn on the side of the road would now remind me of how unsafe these roads were, even with Affan driving.

Affan, Uma, friends and family all packed into the van we left late that afternoon for Colombo where we would first stop at Affan's brother's house to change into our wedding clothes before finally arriving.

-- Like a sore thumb

In a sea of swirling Sri Lankan Muslims, one Atheist, white skinned Backpacker stuck out like a sore thumb, me.

Armed with only a hearty smile and totting an arsenal of cameras, I strutted into the main "Women Only" seating area with Affan and his friends, the wedding had begun.

"You go, You go" they said pushing me from behind and gesturing to the alter.

Feeling extremely uncomfortable with the whole situation, I started walking, passed hundreds of seated Muslim women to finally arrive in front of the bride and groom as they sat facing the crowd, being fed milk from a silver spoon from an elderly lady, a South Indian marital custom I was later told. I could feel all of the stares piercing from the crowd deep in my stomach. "I shouldn't be here" I thought.

Despite some inquisitive looks from the groom, no one seemed to mind that I was standing directly in front of the couple taking pictures like mad. "Maybe I should go now", not wanting to push my luck, I scurried back to Affan after having bagged my fair share of pictures.

Rushing upstairs to the men's eating area with Affan and his seemingly endless stream of smiling and welcoming friends, the adrenaline started to die down. It was time to eat.

"Fork and Spoon" Affan's friend shouted to the waiter as he pointed to me.

"No no, eat with hands, like you!" I said enthusiastically to my new friend.

They all burst into laughter as they respectfully nodded to me.

Everyone was speaking in Sinhalese, it was hard to understand what everyone at the table was saying. Although every once in a while they would all brake into uncontrolled laughter and look my way as I sat there whith a wide grin. I was the entertainment at Affan's table that night...

Everyone was so kind, making sure not to load too much Sambol (Hot) curries into my rice and always making sure the waiter served me first.

The festivities lasted only 2 hours.

"Best wishes" I said to the groom as I shook his hand promptly after Affan had explained to him who I was.

On the journey home to Galle, I couldn't stop smiling 'What a genuine experience' I thought... brilliant.

-- Yala, Safari

The wedding out of the way, it was time to start our tour of Sri Lanka. First stop, Yala National Park.

"Elephants" our Jeep driver shouted as we approached a family of 5 enormous elephants bathing in a shallow pond.

The Safari, overpriced and brutally uncomfortable was something I was glad to have done but not something I'd do again.

Riding into the setting sun, we ended our safari tour with a roll full of wildlife pictures and an empty wallet.

Riding around in dusty, pot hole riddled roads for hours to catch a rare glimpse of a fleeing animal. 'I don't think safaris are my thing... '

"I think I'll bump the Serengeti a little further down on my list of 'places to visit'" I thought.

-- Speechless

It was getting harder and harder for me to find words to express what I was seeing and feeling as we got further into mainland Sri Lanka.

After the Safari we headed for the temples in the dark night. In Kataragama, a Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist temple stood. Not one tourist, but hundreds of zealots swarming to give fruit offerings to Shiva or to smash a flaming coconut on the ground for Buddha.

An experience I was sure to relive again many times in India. I was humbled and feeling, yet again, completely out of place. "Soak it all in Luc, soak it in"

-- Sri Pada - The journey

During our picturesque drive to Sri Pada, better known as Adam's Peak, I ogled at enough waterfalls, monkeys crossing the road, tea plantations, lush towering hills and awe inspiring vistas to make my head spin.

The drive up to the base of the mountain I was to climb at 1am that evening, was a long spiralling one as we climbed higher and higher into the heart of Sri Lanka. Ears popping from the altitude, we stopped to drop some pots off at a friend of Affan's.

"Shall we have tea?" Affan asked as his friend and his wife waved us in.

"Sure!" Never pass up an opportunity.

Affan's friend's family were vegetable farmers and I don't think they'd ever seen a foreigner in this neck of the woods. Basking in the wonderfully authentic experience of strolling through their garden in the middle of a valley surrounded by plantations I sipped my warm milk tea.

Agreeing to shell out the coin to tour around Sri Lanka with Affan was turning to be the best thing I could have done.

-- Sri Pada - The Pilgrimage

"It is foolish not to climb Sri Pada but it is ever more foolish to climb it more than once" Uma told me when I had arrived in Galle a week ago.

Not only is it foolish to do it more than once but it would be very difficult!

The climb is, for Christians, to see Adam's footprints, for Buddhists, to see Buddha's footprints and for Hindu's, to see Shiva's prints but for me, it was to see the sun rise.

The most difficult thing I've ever done in my life was to climb to the peak. Waking at 1am, the pilgrimage started along with several hundred other followers. Some barefoot, some with young children and babies. The climb, a brutaly steep 7km march up crumbling steps and rocky hillsides, was a challenging, 4 hour trek which had an amplified difficulty for me as I was doing it alone.

Not sure what to expect once I reached the summit, I stumbled up, sweating and cold to the dark peak. The tiny temple at the top was full of pilgrims, cuddling in corners and huddled together to keep warm.

At 6am, the masses started to gather on the east face of the rock, pushing and shoving their way to get the best view of the sunrise, it was still dark.

Slowly dark outlines of mountains and mist filled valleys started to appear.

A burst of yellow shot up to the right over the horizon. The crowd chanted and shouted to the sky.

For 30 minutes the sun slowly rose in red, orange, purple and pink hues that ripped through the clouds. As the clouds parted and gathered the colors blended into streams of glowing pools of light which invited loud praise from the masses of pilgrims surrounding me.

Finally the sun broke passed the distant mountains and filled the temple with a warm orange light as the Buddhists began to pray. The attention turned away from the sunrise and to the Buddha as the pilgrims sat and cupped their hands in prayer.

I sat on the steps, engulfed in the welcomed heat from the sun and decided to give meditation a first crack in this ideal, serene setting.

My most vivid memory of the journey was right there... sitting on the steps, Buddhist prayer filling the air and the warm sun casting it's first rays of the day onto me, so bright that my eyelids glowed yellow when I closed my eyes to meditate.

Being one of the only non-Sri Lankans on the summit, the locals stopped to giggle and photograph me. Whistling to get my attention, at times quite rudely. Not having slept much and having just climbed 7km straight up, I was slowly getting annoyed, but then I realized, this was how some others must feel when they're behind my intruding lens. I held in my resentment, sucked up the last ounce of strength I could muster and hopped my way down the steps to Affan, who had been waiting for me at the bottom.

A wrecked mess of heaving sweat and battered bones, I stumbled to a freshly awoken Affan.

"I never want to see another stair again" I gasped to Affan with a big smile on my face. He burst into laughter.

'Magical', This was, by far, the most pure, unspoiled, travel experience I had ever had the pleasure of living...

-- Malaria

The taste of metal rusting in my mouth had faded days ago and it was "Pill Day" for my malaria meds. I decided to take another pill to see if my body had gotten used to the drug, it hadn't. That night in Kandy, nightmares awoke me at 5am. This had to stop...

-- The Ancient Cities

Leaving Kandy we stopped off at the Buddhist publication society to get some information on Buddhist meditation courses on the Island, then we were off to see the Ancient Cities. Sri Lanka is such a diverse country. Beaches, Trekking, Mountains, Plantations, safaris and Ancient ruins, what more could I ask for. Polonaruwa, Sigirya and Anadhapura, 3 of the many ancient cities, were the 3 that we had decided to visit. The ruins were reminiscent of Cambodia's Angkor temples and were beyond words. Snapping wildly with my camera, I managed to snatch enough images to let friends and family back home make their own impressions of the wonderful decaying ruins. (See attached pictures)

-- North bound, the road to Jaffna

Having read the paper each day and talked to many military personnel in Sri Lanka, we had a naive notion that it was safe to make it all the way to Jaffna, the most northern town in Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tiger's well fortified base. We were dead wrong.

Seeing the Red Cross van idling in front of a restaurant in Polonaruwa, we stopped to see if they knew what the situation up north was like.

I walked into the cafe and asked the waiter to point out the person who was driving the van.

"Nono, all of Sri Lanka is safe now" the Red Cross worker told me.

"Boat from Trinco or fly from Colombo but the land route may be closed, here," he reached for a pen "call Mr. Siva, he will help you."

Mr. Siva worked for the ICRC, an International body in Sri Lanka responsible for ensuring that both sides of the conflict conducted their warfare in accordance to the Geneva convention. He was in Vavurnya, the last government held city in the northern part of Sri Lanka. We would head to Vavurnya to talk with Mr. Siva and find out wether it was safe.

We filled up the van with enough gas to get us there and back.

Affan looked at me before turning the key to start the van and shouted "Jaffna Baby!" and we were off.

As the roads started getting rougher, Affan turned and said
"Best to lock the doors"

"Why?" I asked

"You never know, is better I think"

That's when I realized that even Affan didn't quite know what to expect.

The drive to Vavurnya was a foreshadow of what was to come. Bunkers and pillboxes with camoflage clad soldiers every 500 meters, checkpoints at every several kilometers and razor wire bracing every open piece of land. This was a country at war.

We arrived into Vavurnya in the early afternoon. I felt quite safe at first, Military men in bunkers at every street corner clasping ak47s and military convoys passing every 10 minutes, but when we finally reached the ICRC office and found Mr. Siva that feeling would soon disapear.

"What gave you the idea that it would be safe to come up here anyway?" he asked quite candidly.

He sat back in his chair squinting his eyes and staring at me like I was some sort of creature he'd never seen before and said "You know, you're the first tourist I see make it all the way up here. If you would have come yesterday, you would have been turned back by the Sri Lankan Army (SLA)"

I started to explain "Because of the ceasefire, we thought it would be possible to go to Jaffna. Everyone in southern Sri Lanka seems to think it's safe." I covered for Affan and took the accountability.

"Hmmmm, well, it is possible to cross but first you must get approval from the military, but remember, once you cross the border, passed the mine fields, you will be in the hands of the LTTE, we have no military presence there, we cannot help you."

"If you would like to go, see the Government Agent (GA) and apply for a pass, if you need any help, anything at all, please call me" he gave us his personal home number and led us to the GA.

No harm in applying, after all, the information we were getting was very contradicting. Safe? Unsafe? We would later find out.

At the GA's office, the GA provided the application and said he would rush it through. The GA informed us that the Elephant Pass, the main road to Jaffna was closed but it was possible to get to Kilonochi, the most northern Tamil Tiger village before the pass. The new plan was to stay the night and see if the minister in Colombo had approved the application in the morning, if it still seemed safe we would go to Kilonochi.

Now we needed a place to stay. Rest houses are government run motels, and in Vavunya, it was the only place to stay.

Straw mats for beds, no mosquito nets, no running water and horrible service, but being the only show in town we decided to stay.

-- Apocalypse Now

"You know you'll need approval from the LTTE's foreing minister before passing the LTTE side, your pass will only get you passed the SLA" the gray haired man with a british accent shouted from across the dining room of the rest house were we had decided to have a drink and think things through.

"You have to call this satellite number, at a specific time of the day and then fax a request and then wait for the reply. All of this on top of the SLA approval" he continued.

He was smoking Ganja and was stoned out of his mind. Cameras strewn across his table... he was a photographer.

"Can you get me a press pass? I've seen the killing fields, we could work up a pass in the kitchen with some old chemicals!" I shouted back jokingly making reference to a scene in the movie "the killing fields" where a Cambodian is given a fake press pass to evade the Khmer Rouge.

"Ahhh the killing fields... you know, the reporters in the movie, they were my friends" he said

His name was Tim Page. I'd never heard of him but once he explained that he was the photographer that Denis Hopper character had played in the movie 'Apocalypse Now', I held more weight to the process he was starting to describe which we would have to go through to cross the border.

I sat with Tim for the rest of the day as he smoked Ganja and showed me some of the books he'd published while he was a photographer in Vietnam during the war. In the photography world, Tim was famous. 9 published photo books, 2 text books over 20 years of distinguished work in Bosnia, Kroatia, Russia, Combodia, Vietnam and so many other waring countries that I started to wonder just how bad northern Sri Lanka was. If he'd come here to take photos it couldn't be that safe.

Tim quickly sobered us up to reality.

"This is like Boz! It's just like fucking Boz, they haven't got anything right here" he muttered as he compared Vavurnya, the town we were in, to Bosnia. A comparison which immediately sent chills up my spine. "Down by the mines, they have some technicals and are searching every inch of every passing vehicle" he had been denied access to the LTTE side earlier that day and was livid.

Tim complained constantly about how unorganized the country was and how difficult it was to anything done.

"Luc, listen to this. My room key is in the key room. Right? Now, the key for the key room is with the key boy. Got it? Now, here's the kicker... the Key boy is gone grocery shopping with the key to the Key Room! How fucked up is that! Only in Sri Lanka!" Tim blurted as he curled up and laughed madly flailing his arms in the air.

"Now, listen to this, in the north, passed the checkpoint, there is a 30 minute time difference... North! The tigers have their own bloody timezone! Only in Sri Lanka!" Tim laughed so hard he almost fell off his chair.

Tim turned to blast the waiter "Cambodia, has 20 years of war and now they prosper. Understand? Vietnam has 20 years of war and now they boom! ... and Sri Lanka? It's time to wake up chaps!"

As Tim explained the border situation to me, I realized it was time for a new plan. "Ok, we are safe here, in the rest house, we know that much. Let's spend the night and make a decision in the morning" I thought.

"Shall we eat? There's some great roti just down the street" Tim asked

"Sure... why not" I was getting hungry anyways and I didn't want to eat at the rest house.

Tim struggled with his camera and fumbled his way out of his chair. Tim had a limp, from a land mine in Vietnam. He later explained that he had taken shrapnel in the head and had lost 15% of his brain. The limp was the only lasting physical damage.

It was dark out, the nightly power cut had started. The power cuts in Sri Lanka had gone from 2 hours to 5 since I had arrived. The power crisis was getting worse. Burning trash lit the way down the street passed hundreds of Tamils squatting in corners and scurrying around. The Military, with their full arsenals patrolled the streets. It was like a scene out of "Black hawk down" ... Somalia.

Tim and his 2 man, Sri Lankan camera crew walked with me to the corner for some dinner.

Tim was hopping energetically about from side to side taking pictures of just about anything that moved and attracting way to much attention.

Over dinner, Tim gave me some photography pointers and offered to take me to the mine fields in the morning. He was in Sri Lanka to redo his photo essay which had been published some 20 years ago and the mine fields in the early morning was one shot he couldn't miss. I thanked him for the offer and said that I would see if my clearance had passed in the morning.

Back at the rest house, now realizing that it was much more dangerous in Vavurnya than we had originally thought, I called it an early night and locked the doors and windows.

-- Morning

"First we check to see if the van is still here" Affan said looking out the window of our room as we awoke.

"1, 2, 3, 4... 4 tires, we are good." He laughed and rolled back onto his bed.

The tap broke away from the wall as Affan tried to start the shower. This place was the worse I had ever stayed in.

Then it hit me, I realized which character Denis Hopper had played in Apocalypse Now. Denis, or Tim as it were, was a crazy, titchy, photographer in Cambodia that had been taking way to much acid. From yesterday's chat with Tim, he fit the profile perfectly.

As we packed our bags, my gut told me to get out of town. Don't pass go, don't collect 200$, just leave.

"Affan, screw the damn DMZ permit, we're leaving." I said firmly. I hadn't slept well, had been bitten by so many insects through the night that my face was dotted with red marks and more importantly, my gut feeling was telling me that it wasn't safe to stay there any longer. I'd had enough.

Leaving the rest house, we stopped at a checkpoint to talk to the military. They came to the window of the van and talked in Sinhalese whispers to Affan. The sentry was nervous, it was obvious.

"It is not safe here, any moment something could happen. When you go back, tell others not to come"

"Let's go Affan, let's go! just drive..."

All the time while planning my trip I had told myself that I would go to any country as long as I wasn't "unwanted" there. It was now clear that there were some people in Vavurnya that didn't want me there...

On the drive out of the city we could see Tamil flags on every building, they had held a rally in Vavunya just 2 days ago and had their insignia plastered just about everywhere the eye could see. The tigers were even selling snuff tapes of their attacks on the military which they had carried out over the years. Tim had bought all 3 tapes.

When I arrived at the safety of my Negombo beach lodge, 400km away from the northern border, I bumped into a nurse I had met at the Vavurnya rest house. We sat and talked as she told me horrific stories of decapitaded bodies and dead children being hauled into the emergency ward.

Tim was braver, or maybe just more stoned, than I was, he had left for the LTTE side earlier that day. We exchanged emails and promised to visit each other one day.

Safe and sound, on the beach, thinking back to that day's morning in Vavurnya it all seemed surreal. I was glad we went but was happier that we had mad it back safely... I would stick to the beaten path for the rest of my stay in Sri Lanka.
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