Monday, 2 August 2010

Kalkudah, hale and hearty!

Life is a learning experience, so what can I deduce from the harrowing experience of getting to Kalkudha. Firstly, not to exaggerate the hardships of the train ride, it was more my own insecurities rather than anything else. Starting on the wrong foot, by taking exception to a guy forcing his way in front at the ticket office queue, I never felt completely at ease. Of course as the night wore on, and tiredness crept up, my discomfort grew. There wasn’t anything to worry about, I was just tired and wanted to curl up in a comfy corner and sleep. What was meant to be a 4.5 hour journey was actually 9 hours, such is the reliability of Sri Lankan trains; I had been warned! Two plain clothed police sat across the isle from me, at least that’s what I assume they were. Every police officer and soldier boarding the train, or patrolling each platform would greet them with cheerful familiarity. That unnerved me, not that they were unfriendly or hostile in any way, it was a spot of paranoia on my behalf. (Photo: Minesweeping the leftovers - French Garden Restuarant, Uppuveli, Sri Lanka)

I’m not at my best after being settled at one place and moving onto another. A situation brought to my attention whilst writing my book, a useful one to remember. It isn’t just when I rode the Americas, it plagues me still. And tiredness doesn’t help; I can be a right grouchy swine when overly tired. Unnecessary waiting bugs me, being hassled bugs me and having the squits topped it all off. A 5 hour wait in the dead of night, on a mosquito infested platform isn’t my idea of fun. Stinking, festering toilets I can normally handle, they’re distasteful, but must be tolerated. They are far more preferable than train toilets, mere holes in the floor, leading directly to the rails, without any water to wash yourself clean. That really is a nightmare, having severe diarrhea is made much worse without water or toilet paper. Of course being a smart-arse over foreign environments, I don’t carry toilet paper; I go native, making do with water and my left hand. Never eat with your left hand! Luckily I’d had the forethought of carrying in my drinking water, and used my last half litre to wash my arse. All the staff and fellow passengers at Galoyo junction were helpful and friendly, it wasn’t their fault I felt ill and wanted to be left alone. I didn’t shun them; I don’t like rejecting people’s good intentions. I even took a long time explaining to a 22yr old that a sponsor and visa into the UK wasn’t the answer to all his dreams. Poor lad, his English was limited and communication was slow and awkward. Despite giving me a free milk-chocolate drink he took it well, along with the ribbing the older station workers gave him over it. Fair play on him though, he didn’t ask me to pay for the drink! (Photo: 1] Swaying palms; 2] Fisherman's home - Kalkudah Beach, Nr Batticaloa, Sri Lanka)

As tourism takes hold of poorer countries it warps peoples perceptions, foreign visitors are seen as easy sources of money. Up in Trincomalee, outside the Buddhist run guesthouses I never had that feeling, I could go into local cafes without asking the price of every item I ate, confident that I would be charged a fair price. No-one tried taking advantage of me, I felt respected and welcome. Within a day here it has a different feel to it, I need to back off and reassess the situation, because at the moment I feel targeted as a source of easy money. In Trinco they didn’t regaled stories of hardship, they didn’t try to take advantage. The few locals here I’ve sat and chatted with, are full of their tales of woe due to the Tsunami, it’s all hard luck stories. Sitting in newly built homes, gifted by various NGO’s, they’ve tried to capture my sympathy with hard luck stories. The young people supposedly have no jobs, no prospects, they must resort to fishing. Ok, I’ve only just arrived, I can’t have a decent grasp on the local situation. But up in Trinco they are getting on with it, they’ve had much less in the way of NGO handouts, and they are not sitting around waiting for handouts. (Photo: Lobster for supper - Newland Guesthouse Kalkudah, Nr Batticaloa, Sri Lanka)

Right now, I’m inclined to hold scathing criticism over the way the whole international aid system works. There are plenty of fishing folk living in shacks on the beach, luckily they have boats, most of which were NGO donations; but their living conditions are basic. For these people, there have been no new concrete homes, they continue to strive each day, yet they manage. They feed their families, they survive, they do their best. For them, there were no papers to prove they had a home before the Tsunami, so there were no new builds. Why is it that those who gained the most, whinge the most? Families abiding in new concrete shells, sitting on plastic picnic chairs, their children share the same room to sleep, no mattress’s, just straw mats to lay down their heads. Yet many of these homes have a couple of rooms, furnished, with en-suite bathrooms kept empty in case they can be rented out. And still it is those who pile on the tales of woe. (Photo: 1] Three up; 2] Lagging behind - Valaichchennai Rd, Kalkudah, Sri Lanka)

Chatting to locals is supposed to be what many of my travels are about, to get a idea of the situation in any country it’s essential. Some countries it can be difficult, like Cuba and Sri Lanka, where the ever-present police and military personnel make people very wary of talking openly. Few people here will criticize the authorities, none will support any views held by the late Tamil tigers, even the few who’ve admitted associations with them. For those individuals it seems enough to acknowledge the association, dangerous to expound on the declaration. But dissent is in the air, the government are not that popular, corruption is rife within government circles and it doesn’t go un-noticed. At Pasakudah beach there are prominent signs, declaring a government decree that no new development is permitted within 300 metres of the beach. It isn’t only me who recognizes the ludicrous situation for fishermen, the new NGO homes are half a mile from the beach. Donations of new fishing boats can’t be faulted, they were essential for the survival of fishing families, what a shame they have no other form of transport, no means to transport equipment etc, from home to their place of work. So once again the fisherman live at the beachhead, in palm and tin shacks, I find it hard to believe they are strong enough to survive the monsoon season, let alone another tsunami. (Photo: Trying to free caste net from coral heads - Kalkudah point, Nr Batticaloa, Sri Lanka)

Of those who own land, few can relocate on their own property, which is within the exclusion zone. There’s plenty of evidence of buildings flattened by the devastating force of the tsunami, they do not necessarily form the larger proportion of trashed houses though. There are as many outside the damage zone left uninhabitable, they’re either too far inland or the damage is not synonymous with a gigantic crushing wave. Blackened fire damage is a dead give-away, as have bullet holes scoring the exterior of some, though not most. The biggest enigma for me is the virtually intact shells, missing only the doors, windows and roofs; these deserted homes have no other sign of damage. Whilst driving through Bosnia, shortly after the war there, a similar observation was made. The explanation was simple, it was the sign of people driven from their homes, ensuring they were not left habitable, so they couldn’t move back in. It’s obvious from the brickwork surrounds to the doors and windows that they have been removed forcibly, smashed out with sledgehammers or similar wrecking tools. To me these are the signs of war torn countries, the means of destroying people’s lives, basically it’s slash and burn tactics. SLA (Sri Lanka Army) daubed within some ruins, inevitably lead to the conclusion the countries military can be held responsible, but they are only dotted here and there, the majority do not sport such claims of responsibility. If we’re to believe reports local rioting and community clashes, due to religious intolerance or differing factions of the LTTE. I’m not qualified or well enough informed to clarify the validity of such claims, I have noticed though, none of the trashed building have religious proclamations or LTTE slogans daubed on them. (Photos: 1] Rush hour on the beach; 2] Collecting water, not passing it - Kalkudah, Nr Batticaloa, Sri Lanka)

Personally, I do not believe the strife here is over. People are relieved over a stop to hostilities, but they are not happy with their allotted position in the countries fortunes. They are generally a happy people, most claim religious harmony and show no sign of enmity; but few are satisfied with the poverty under which they exist. Common are the views that society here is one sided, the war hasn’t changed that. Maybe there is some sense in keeping redevelopment off the beach, but why are large hotel chains being given carte blanche to build new luxury resorts on the beach itself. Why are the rich and powerful, Singhalese, business’ given permission to desecrate beautiful stretches of natural beach, whilst the poor and needy can’t live within a workable distance of their livelihood? The local folk don’t seem to want this, they don’t want to be subjected to a flood of rich tourists, they know that side of tourism does not create an enriched local economy. That form of tourism is insidious; visitors rarely frequent local facilities, spending remains within the resort complex. The question I’ve heard asked most, “what is wrong with smaller, locally owned tourist accommodation?” They’d prefer guesthouses to hotels, naturally built, environmentally friendly cabanas. What’s wrong with fans and local building materials? They actually favour the budget traveler, those who intermingle, who shop locally and spread their money around. (Photo: Kids and building sites - Newland guesthouse, Kalkudah, Sri Lanka)

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