In search of the perfect beach

Trip Start Apr 01, 2008
Trip End Jul 15, 2012

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Monday, January 19, 2009

I first visited Sri Lanka in 1998, as part of a touring Sussex University Cricket team. Hugo had drafted me and a few others in as ringers, to bolster numbers and share in what promised to be an amazing three weeks. I had officially retired from the game two years previously, but the temptation to roll my arm over in blistering sub-tropical heat had proved too much. I dug out my old bowling boots and a big white floppy hat and before I knew it, was limbering up to open the bowling against a Sri Lanka select side in temperatures that were better suited to the inside of a volcano. It was so hot that after bowling the first six balls, I was so wet I had to wring my shirt out. Despite a good effort all around, we lost the match by some considerable margin - a sign of things to come. It later transpired that there had been a little confusion as to our standard, with the organisers mistaking us for Sussex County Cricket team. Needless to say we lost all bar one of our ten or so games, being hit to the furthest corners of every top class ground Sri Lanka had to offer by a seemingly endless selection of talented up and coming Sri Lankan cricketers, hell bent on taking as many English scalps as possible. The thrashings took nothing away from the overall experience though and if nothing else, provided a fantastic swan song before I hobbled quietly back into retirement.

After the long and arduous three week tour, I was in serious need of some relaxation (with every muscle I had forgotten about, screaming for mercy), so took up the option of extending my stay for a further three weeks. As it turned out, I was alone in this and so it was with nervous excitement that I waved the rest of the team off and turned to discover a different Sri Lanka on my tod.

The next three weeks were utterly magical and left a deep impression on me. I spent several days living with an elderly retired English teacher called Cycil Weerakorn in his small mud house in the jungle, listening to him recount stories from his extraordinary life. He had been the archaeological inspector for Sri Lanka and had also been given the duty of guiding visiting dignitaries and heads of state around the island's many ancient sites, including the sublime and undisputed wonder of the world - Sigyria rock. His life had been interwoven with tragedies, such as the deaths of two grandchildren from snake and centipede bites and the sudden death of his son, whom he had loved more than life itself, at the age of 37. Whenever ropes snapped and the buckets fell into the bottom of wells in the surrounding villages, Cycil's son would be called to dive in and retrieve them. He had done this for years, but for some reason, whilst diving into the shallow well behind his own house with friends, he had failed to surface. Listening to this old man recount the story with tears careering uncontrollably down his face, is one of the few memories that will stay with me forever.

Another highlight of my trip in '98, was the journey up to the north-east coast to Trincomalee, in an attempt to find good weather (Sri Lanka has two distinct monsoon seasons that effect different parts of the island at different times). I managed to hitchhike all the way to Trinco in a colourful truck, past innumerable army checkpoints manned by gun-toting teenagers who would break into huge beaming smiles when provoked. After one night, I decided to head slightly further north to a place called Nilavelli, in search of a nice beach. What I found, surpassed all expectations - a forgotten paradise, lost amidst the uncertainty, chaos and fear of the ongoing civil war. The bleached white sand dipped into the glassy turquoise sea, which you could walk into for two kilometers at certain times of day, with the water barely above your waist, before catching a wave all the way into the beach. In the two days I spent on Nilavelli beach, I saw no-one apart from the caretaker of my guest house (I was the only guest). To this day it remains the most perfect beach I have ever seen.

It was for this reason that I was so keen to re-visit Nilavelli this time around. My memory is normally very poor, but I wanted to know whether or not these faded, frayed images would bear any resemblance to a beach that in the eleven years since had seen a cease fire and increase in tourism, the full force of the tsunami only two years later and more recently a big push by the government to wipe out the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) altogether.

As in 1998, our journey to Trincomalee involved passing through untold numbers of army checkpoints. With the civil war threatening to reach some kind of conclusion and Independence Day looming, I wandered if security levels were particularly high or if these poor people had endured this rigmarole every day since I had last visited and long before then. As we edged closer and closer to Trinco there was plenty of time to take in our surroundings while we waited for locals to file off the bus, the contents of the bus to be examined and then file back on again. The extent of the damage on the general landscape was plain to see. There was little to suggest there was much of a community beyond the army barracks and checkpoints along the roadside. There was a distinct lack of lush jungle or cultivated fields; just a vast expanse of rough, spartan bushland, that seemed devoid of nature or man's loving touch, sacrificed to the needs of war. We were entering the edges of a Sri Lanka that was far removed from the South - where times were occasionally hard, but not desperate. This was the battleground of Sri Lanka's war, the place where the LTTE fought first against the oppression of the Sinhalese government, demanding a separate homeland, Eelam and later for a cause that seemed less concerned with the betterment of the Tamil population as a whole and more for the immediate enrichment of those in charge.

The blame for the conflict can be attributed to either side, depending on your perspective, and clearly there have some terrible decisions and atrocities committed by both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil freedom fighters over the years, not to mention the fact that the continuation of the war was almost certainly beneficial to both sides from a financial perspective. It seems though that at long last, the government is aware of the Sri Lanka people's overwhelming desire for an end to the conflict. A conflict that has raged for almost thirty years, between a Sinhalese and Tamil population that have for the most part continued to live and work alongside each other peacefully.

The question now is whether the present government's hard line military offensive can be married with a genuine, workable political and humanitarian program to help and allow the North of Sri Lanka and the Tamil people to rebuild their lives and co-exist with their Sinhalese neighbours on an equal footing, as Sri Lankan citizens.

On arrival in Trincomalee the four of us jumped straight into a couple of tuctucs and set out to Nilavelli. This journey took us through an area even more desolate than before, with the pot-holed, gravel road, running through a barren wasteland on either side of us. If there were going to be land mines anywhere, it seemed to me that this was the place. We bounced along, through more checkpoints past officials whose questioning frowns spoke volumes. The area had changed since my last visit, that was certain.

Of all the guest houses listed in our guide book, there were only two that were still operational. The others were either closed down, were catering for NGO groups only, or had been requisitioned by the armed forces. I tried to locate my old guest house from '98, which even then had been on the brink of closure, with it's many rooms and bright mural covered dining room and bar, sadly devoid of any guests whatsoever. As I had feared, it was completely deserted, having been basically destroyed out by the waves of 2004. Even more depressingly, the beach, 'the perfect beach' had now been commandeered by the Sri Lankan Navy, who were using it as a base from which to wipeout LTTE boats. I couldn't get within a hundred meters of it, due to the mass of barbed wire, lookout posts and burly gun-toting soliders. So I have no idea whether the beach of my dreams and faded memory still exists. Probably not is my guess.

We ended up staying in a guest house slightly further down the coast, called Coral Bay, which had a swimming pool, albeit an empty one, nice staff and a beach that had a certain battered charm, but whose many palm trees were either dead, beheaded or contorted, having been partially uprooted by the power of the tsunami. The village of Nilavelli had become pretty bleak with only a few tiny shops along the dusty road selling the bare essentials, but still retained a semblance of it's former self; a bruised gentleness.

After a few days, we ventured back down the coast to Upavelli, where the beach had been hit less hard by the tsunami and as a result was slightly cleaner and more vibrant, with local fishermen adding to the entertainment. After a few days of swimming, playing beach volleyball and generally lounging, my parents left to explore some of the ancient sites, while Anna and I hitched our way down to Kandy.

I think we all agreed that the experience was well worth the effort, giving us an insight into another, uglier but very real side of the island. Essentially though it confirmed my fears. The region had taken one battering too many and was now in serious need of some prolonged peace and stability in order to recuperate and with any luck, flourish once again.
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