Monday, 21 June 2010

Might ain't right!

Bejayzus, it’s hot here! The humidity is extreme, the sun is scorching and my body wilted in an instant. After a day of travelling I had no reserves of energy, the best I could manage was to find a guidebook recommended guesthouse and chill out. It wasn’t the cheapest and certainly not the best, but I needed a couple of nights to lay down my head and relax. Three days into Sri Lanka and I’m still suffering from a severe lack of energy. Initially I stayed in Negombo, a short hop from the airport, purely to rest and prepare myself for a visit to the capital, Colombo. There’s little hurry I’m here for 3 months, my first priority is to get acclimatized and it’s taking a while. I’d hoped to get in and out Colombo within a couple of days, it’s the only place I can extend my visa or get a driving permit. On entry to the country tourists are only given a 30 day visa, extensions are easily available, but only from the Dept of Immigration. My intention is also to procure a motorbike for at least some of my time here, if not all. With an international driving permit the AAC (Automobile Association of Ceylon) need to validate it for use while here. (Photo: Life by the railway - Negombo, Sri Lanka)

I had expected a heavy military presence and was pleasantly surprised at a lack of military personnel around the airport and the surrounding towns. That was until I caught a train, realizing that every road between towns and villages has a roadblock. And the perimeter of the airport is actually heavily guarded, with watchtowers, machinegun placements and a moat. You just can’t see them from the public side! Reaching Colombo got even heavier; every five meters gun-toting soldiers lined the sidewalk, clusters of them congregated at every road junction. They were everywhere, though it was meant to be for a special occasion! Today is the first anniversary of the civil war ending, a celebration of the annihilation of the Tamil Tigers. The president, in his infinite wisdom called it a public holiday and used it as an excuse to parade the military might of the nation. There were reportedly over 9,000 personnel who took part in the parade, there must have been as many patrolling the streets and interspersed with the crowds. Having taken part of military parades I was amazed at the numbers on the parade. The amount of weaponry on display was obscene! (Photo: Not an African Grey Parrot - Gangaramaya Buddhist shrine, Colombo, Sri Lanka)

(Photo: Victory parade - Galle Field Green, Colombo, Sri Lanka)

Bearing in mind the poverty of this Island their defense budget is immense. The deployment of the army and police around the capital is staggering, the east coast and northern provinces are supposedly even worse. These are the areas populated mainly by the Tamils. Obviously they wouldn’t have been left without their strong military presence during the victory celebrations in Colombo. If only a small fraction of military spending was put to better use it would go a long way to ensuring the population had no reason to perpetuate a civil war. I’m sure killing the leaders of the Tamil Tigers has not rid the Tamil population of their gripes; surely addressing their complaints is the only way to ensure long lasting peace. Subjugation is no way to solve a problem, it merely pushes it further underground. And printing victory banknotes will only rub salt into the wounds! How can a Buddhist nation be so violent to their compatriots, how can their religious followers allow it to happen? It will be interesting to reach the Tamil areas, which is where I mean to spend most my time. People over the west, mainly Singhalese, do not want to talk about the civil war. Their only comments are expressions of happiness that it’s all over, if asked whether it is actually over they answer with an emphatic YES. (Photo: Slum Cricket - City wasteland, Colombo, Sri Lanka)

The monsoon is blowing onto the west coast, tourist season is over so there’s few around; making me a prime target for being hustled. In my first 24 hrs I was offered hash, cocaine, opium and heroine; not bad for a country that has the death penalty for possession of illegal drugs. The wolves were at the door as soon as I arrived, fresh meat to the slaughter. Hawkers have hung around the exit to my guesthouse for a couple of hours waiting for me to leave. Similar to Indians, the Sri Lankans are overly polite, they make it almost pleasant to be hustled; almost! More time was spent being waylaid, rejecting offers of anything and everything, than enjoying myself. That in itself can be very tiring and certainly time consuming! I did accept tea in someone’s house, but declined to give them money or enter negotiations for an arranged marriage. Neither did I accept a beauty consultant as future bride, nor volunteer to act as sponsor to pave the way into the UK for an apparently wealthy taxi-driver. But I have refused to treat people with contempt, I’m here to meet people and experience their country: not dismiss them out of hand. It still makes a chore of even going for a quiet walk or popping out for a bottle of water. (Photo: Hindu deities - Sri Subramania Kovil Temple, Colombo, Sri Lanka)

I’ve been taken for a right Wally in Colombo, a typical scam which I actually allowed to happen, even once realising what was going on. Wherever you go people scam tourists, they are all variations of the same thing, how to get money out the dumb foreigner. I’ve dealt with so many, the worse thing was becoming aware of it and not extracting myself immediately. Why? Because I didn’t want to assert myself, didn’t want to diss a stranger, I wanted to give them the benefit of doubt. I allowed someone to take me on a taxi ride and attempt to lumber me with a stupidly high bill.I guess it was quite clever of the guy, he spent a bit of time gaining my confidence, walking with me to show me a Hindu ceremonial procession, which two other people had tried taking me to. Halfway there he starting limping and suggested we get a tuk-tuk, despite being clear I didn’t have the money for rides in tuk-tuks I still got in one with him. With hind sight is it any surprise I felt sorry for someone having problems with his leg? He might even have noticed a slight wobble from my left knee as we walked. Once sat in the vehicle he just prolonged the journey, I did object, but not with enough conviction. For a while at least! Eventually I made them stop the tuk-tuk and refused to pay the bill. Either the driver was not in on it or he played the part well (I’m inclined to believe the latter), he seemed so angry with the guy, so I left them to sort it out between them. It will not happen again, I just feel stupid that it occurred in the first place. (Photo: Fisherman casting - Filthy canal, Colombo city, Sri Lanka)

Due to the impromptu public holiday, it was only announced two days before it happened, I couldn’t get my visa extension or bloody driving permit. So I’m stuck in Colombo for three extra days over the weekend. But I’ve booked a train ticket for Tuesday, hopefully there will be no problems and by Tues evening I’ll be in Kandy. The train ride there is well recommended; they have an observation carriage with all round views. First class, what! Trains are a pittance, it only cost £2 for the 2 ½ hr journey. I wish I could say the same for the hotels, Colombo is very short on cheap accommodation. In such a poor country $50 a night is extortionate! It allows me longer to settle into the country though, and I’m not about to worry myself over a couple of hundred dollars. Refusing to use air conditioning makes acclimatisation better, but the whole hotel is decidedly cooler than outside. (Photo: Bronze relief of Siddhārtha Gautama after 49 days meditatation under the Bodhi tree- Gangaramaya Buddhist shrine, Colombo, Sri Lanka)

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