Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sri Lanka--On Both Coasts

It was a long drive out from Colombo , the capital, to Trincomalee. You follow a southwest-to-northeast path that cuts straight across Sri Lanka from coast to coast and the traffic on the first half plus the road construction thereafter makes travel time for the trip about 6½ hours. The train takes eight hours. Roads are still not clear to Jaffna , the center of Tamil culture at the extreme northern point of the island. The Sinhalese-dominated government won the war, as to which reasonable people may differ on whether it was good or bad, but the government thus far has not seemed to be trying very hard at reconciling the two sectors of the population. (Tamils and Muslims make up a total of about 25 percent of the population.)

Right now, politics is in an uproar. The general who won the war then ran for president and lost, and now has been arrested for allegedly planning a coup. Demonstrators for the opposition were tear-gassed and\set upon by thugs apparently in league with the police, who are part of the military. The government has promised reforms, especially after parliamentary elections in April. The chief magistrate in Colombo showed a lot of courage when she excoriated the police two days ago for their behavior at the demonstration.

Trincomalee is one place I had not planned on visiting but being in Sri Lanka to work on an assessment of rule of law here, but I drew the trip to the northeastern coast. And since the regular hotel the people on the project put us up at was under renovation, there was not much choice but to lodge me at Nilaveli Beach . Nor had I recalled that these two locales were the precise ones the N.Y. Times listed recently at the top of their 31 places to go this year, and the paper reportedly was emphasizing the new and different.

So you might ask what’s so special about this place? First, Trincomalee is one of the finest natural harbors in the world. So said Lord Nelson, and he arguably knew something about that. (We’ll pass on his romantic endeavors as well as his dispatch of the French fleet at Trafalgar.) With the town on one peninsula and great bays on either side with mountains in the far background, there are fine views aplenty. Out at Nilaveli Beach , all you have is the Indian Ocean , blue-green breakers with a rocky Bali Hai-like island in the distance and someone mixing lime-and-sodas at your request.

On the other hand, many in Sri Lanka , especially expats who get around the island, thought the Times was conned. Yes, the beach is fantastic—white sand and sandy bottom about as far out as you can go—but the half board is not exactly cutting edge with a somewhat tired buffet. Since swimming—pool in addition to the glorious white-sand beach—is the only facility, my dad would’ve been in heaven.

You know what I mean when you see the tennis court is missing a net. Management hasn’t yet invested in any English-language tv stations on cable. Nevertheless, the beach and view are great. Since there are still troops and checkpoints, this place, like so many I get to, is not quite ready for prime time tourism, but when it is, it will quickly become one of those places I’m sure I won’t be able to afford.

Trinco, or Trinky, as the locals call it, is part of the minority Tamil region of the country, and the mood is not good, given that they lost their fight thus far for regional devolution and full recognition of their rights as citizens by the majority. This island, when at peace, has been called a tropical paradise and I saw some evidence of that. All kinds of palms are everywhere, wonderful marshlands pass by your window, and animals abound. On the trip I saw a Steinbeckian turtle and a peacock crossing the highway, braces of oxen hauling carts, dogs and goats aplenty, lots of roaming cattle as we drove farther into what is the Hindu section of the country, and, yes, my first elephant here, being led by a workman near an inland resort. (Not counting the wonderful Elephant brand ginger beer.)

Colombo itself has a reputation for being a dull spot amidst an island filled with fascination. I did see a mango tree right in the city overhanging a bus stop but they were still green so there was no low-hanging fruit for strategic planners to get. There are some beach restaurants—places that serve fresh fish and seafood right on the Indian Ocean beach. You cross the railroad tracks by foot on the busy line from Colombo to Galle to reach these places. I went to a different one, I think, from the one I was taken to when here several years ago, and the fish was still good. The deviled crabs are a lot like our Chesapeake Bay blues, broken up a bit and slathered with a tangy sauce—they require the same amount of effort that all crabs do so those without those mid-Atlantic skills often give up.

Pics to folo, in that I can’t unload pictures soon enough to include here. In this part of Sri Lanka , the most popular lunch dish is rice and curry. Sounds rather simple, but in addition to the slivers of chicken and green bits ranging from field greens to mildly hot peppers, there is subtle spicing and some on the side if you want more. The rice is very short-grain and closer to small barley than the usual varieties of longer-grain rice we get.

Colombo has some snazzy restaurants—actually, I don’t mean flashy, although it probably has a few of those too—such as one designed by Geoffrey Bawa, prominent local architect, that has fish ponds and screens and all kinds of metal sculpture and other art. The menus are also imaginative, although a companion was disappointed that they were out of the barramundi but you had your choice of carrot or pumpkin gnocchi. I think you get the picture.

There was also the Cricket Club, actually a restaurant with the titular motif, as well as flat screens beaming the latest from the First South Africa—India Test, with every item on the long menu named after an international star of that other game that lots of other places play, but in this case, we hardly play at all. In a week or so, there will be 200,000 screaming Bengalis in Eden Gardens , Kolkata (formerly Calcutta ), at the Second Test that will determine the world title. The Cricket Club has a burger as good as you get in any ballpark—and no better.

There are lots of shrines all over the country, most for the Buddha; the most are in Kandy , in the central highlands and last capital of the independent Sri Lankan kingdom until 1815 but I saw a famous shrine right by the side of the ocean and you see them at many crossroads.

There’s also the usual melee of traffic you see in large Asian cities, with Colombo driving and quite a way out of town an exercise in avoiding hitting the many small three-wheeler taxis, sometimes called tuk-tuks, the many motorcycles, an occasional horse and cart, large trucks—not as gaily painted as in India, and overstuffed buses—I saw one yesterday literally leaning to one side by the horde hanging out the doors, and I think, the windows. There are marked crosswalks for pedestrians but no one I saw had the slightest expectation that any of that array of vehicles would stop for someone to cross.

A surprisingly large number of people here—well, lawyers and the like—have been to the U.S. , despite how hard it is now to obtain visas. And speaking of snow, which does not happen here, I much appreciated being advised from home that I sure know when to get out of town. It makes me a little wary of coming back too soon. It also make me recall one human rights lawyer I met today in Trinco and one I worked with in Indonesia, both of whom were invited to and attended conferences on that subject in Oslo: upon arrival, they found they didn’t own any clothing that would work for them in weather they couldn’t possibly have anticipated.

Elephant alert: saw two more on the ride back from Trinco, one giving rides the way they used to at the Bronx Zoo and the other working by carrying branches in its trunk down the highway.

Not quite as fleet as the recently-deceased best pair of guards--Dick McGuire and Carl Braun.

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